As promised, this is a follow-up to this call for action
to let your media know what you think of the Green Party being excluded from the debate.
In that post I didn't explain why
I thought the Green Party should be included so I'll do that here.
To begin with, we have to ask, what is the point of having a televised debate? Seems obvious enough, the point is for voters to get more information about their options so they can make an informed choice.1
So the goal, or optimal result of a debate would be to expose the greatest number of people to the greatest number of potential voting options, over the long term.
This leads to a tension between two things. On the one hand, the more party leaders present in the debate, the more viewpoints a viewer will be exposed to. On the other hand, as the number of leaders present increases, each leader gets less time, so it is possible that including leaders of parties that few people are considering voting for, at the expense of giving less time to leaders of parties that most voters are going to consider voting for, could be sub-optimal.
Furthermore, a debate which includes many different people, or which includes people that a voter is not considering voting for may reduce their willingness to watch the debate, also producing a sub-optimal outcome.
The media has never come out and clearly stated what their criteria for including a party in the debate is, which seems like a huge oversight. Given how much scrutiny is given to election advertising generally, the allocation of what amounts to by far the most valuable advertising in the entire election is left in the unaccountable hands of a few unelected people who make a selection based on - well, who knows, really.
Assuming that we are unwilling to just say that it should be left up to the subjective judgement of the broadcasters to decide who's in and who's out, without requiring any rational justification for their decision whatsoever (a position so weak, I see no need to spend time refuting it) it seems reasonable to point out that the only remotely logical, consistent position left to the broadcasters is that they only include parties if they hold a seat in parliament (ignoring that this rule has not been consistently applied at the provincial level).
As an aside, it's worth noting that, given how our electoral system works, such a policy would be tantamount to an official policy on the part of our broadcasters to only support the development of regional protest parties, not national ones - and we wonder why national unity is an issue!
Anyway, as much as it would be nice if our broadcasters could reinforce national unity, rather than implicitly supporting the breakup of the country, the point of the debate is not to promote national unity, it is to educate voters. So does a policy of only including parties with a seat in the House of Commons serve this purpose? Well, it is better than no rule at all, since it generally does differentiate between parties with more (have a seat in the house) and less (don't) support. But it is clearly not an optimal rule to use because the goal is to represent parties which are considered by a large number of voters and representation in the House of Commons is not the best measure of this.
To make it painfully clear why having a seat is not the best proxy for being considered by a large number of voters, consider an example. Say the Green party ran candidates in every riding, received 1,000,000 votes in the next election and failed to win a seat, but the Alberta Separation Party were to win a seat in a 2006 byelection. Would we then include the Alberta Separation party in the 2008 election debate and exclude the Greens? Even if they were only running a handful of candidates in rural Alberta? The 'must have a seat in the house to be in the debate' rule will backfire in this case by excluding a party likely to be considered by many, and including a party likely to be considered by few.
A better rule for the networks to use would be to set a threshold based on the number of votes received in the election. The most logical threshold would seem to be the same one used by Elections Canada
to determine whether or not a party receives public funding:
"The party must garner either 5% of the vote in the electoral districts in which it has confirmed candidates, or an overall 2% of the national vote."
If a higher threshold is desired, then perhaps 5% of the total vote could be used, since 5% is, to my knowledge, the highest threshold used anywhere in the world for parties to qualify to receive seats under proportional electoral systems. Anything beyond 5% seems likely to produce a sub-optimal debate by excluding a party considered by many voters.
Which is a reminder that while considering the actual vote total (rather than the seat total) is an improvement, we are still just approximating what we are really trying to measure, which is how many people are planning to seriously consider voting for a certain party (or would if exposed to their views in a debate).
It sounds obvious, but one of the most important factors a voter must consider in deciding who to vote for, is which parties are running candidates in their riding. If a party is not running in a voter's riding, we can expect the impact of that party's platform on the voter's decision to be greatly diminished.
By this logic, it might seem like a reasonable criteria would be to include in the debate any party which is running a candidate in every riding since it is those parties which are worth considering by every single voter in the country.
This is oversimplifying, however. While it is true that if the Communist Party (or the Marxist-Leninst party) were to run a candidate in every riding then every Canadian could potentially vote for them, that doesn't make it true that every voter actually *will* consider voting for them. For the major parties, we can assume that a large majority of the population is willing to consider what they have to say and would be interested in hearing their platform explained/defended. For smaller parties, this is more difficult to assess. For example, given that roughly 4% of the population voted for the Green Party in the last election with next to no media coverage whatsoever, what percentage of the population is likely to want to hear the Green Party leader speak in a debate so they can hear what he has to say because they are at least willing to consider voting green in the next election? Perhaps this could be estimated by polling, but it seems reasonable to think that it has to be at least 10% of the population, and probably closer to 20 or 30%.
One other thing we know is that, given that there will be two debates in English and two in French, it is unlikely that a person would watch (or listen to) a debate which is not in their preferred language. So let us consider the proposed English language debate
which will include 4 parties: The Liberals, The Conservatives, The NDP and the Bloc Quebecois. Given that the goal of the debate is to expose voters to parties they may want to vote for, does it make sense to include the Bloc Quebecois and exclude the Green Party?
# of Seats Held
Bloc Quebecois 54
Green Party 0
# of Votes Received Last Election
Bloc Quebecois 1,680,109
Green Party 582,247
# of Voters Who Have a Party Candidate in Their Riding
Bloc Quebecois 3,507,100
Green Party 13,683,570
# of English Speaking Voters Who Have a Candidate in Their Riding1
Bloc Quebecois 526,605
Green Party 9,667,647
# of English Speaking Voters Willing to Consider Voting for the Candidate in Their Riding
Bloc Quebecois = 263,032 (50% of English speakers in Quebec)
Green Party = 966,764 (10% of English speakers across the country)
Given that the purpose of the debate is to inform voters who might consider voting for a particular party, it seems clear that the choice of including the Bloc Quebecois and excluding the Green Party is sub-optimal, or more bluntly, undemocratic. A more optimal plan would be to include the Green party in both debates, or to include the Green party in one of the two English debates or to include the Green Party in one debate and the Bloc Quebecois in the other.
So to sum up a few pages of carefully constructed argument, why, why on earth do I get an English debate taking place in Vancouver with no Green Party representation but including the Bloc Quebecois when their nearest candidate is over 1,000 miles away!
Update: I thought I would clarify that I do think the Bloc should be included in the debate, I'm just pointing out that there is little or no logical reason to include them if you are going to exclude the Green Party.
Setting aside everything I have said in this post, an alternate methodology would be to start from the assumption that the debate is a service provided to viewers and simply poll the viewers on which parties they feel should be represented in the debates. This might raise some questions of the proper polling methodology to employ to get an unbiased result, but I feel these issues could be dealt with by a competent independent polling company hired to do the survey work - it would certainly be an improvement over the backroom dealing we have now. Of course, based on what polls have been taken
, it seems likely this method would also lead to the Green Party being included in the debate, so maybe this is a moot point, from a theoretical perspective.
Ainge has more
on this topic.
There are other possible goals for the debate (to provide ratings for the networks, to reinforce the hegemony of the existing parties, etc.), but I can't think of any which have any legitimacy. I mean, if the purpose is just to boost ratings, why not have a hockey game involving the leaders, or have them face off in some sort of fear-factor style series of competitions.2
Estimated assuming 15% of Quebecers speak English as a first language
, and 95% of the rest of Canada does.