Let Elizabeth May speak

MEAN POLITICS

Let Elizabeth May speak
I’m alarmed at how easily parties put their own interest ahead of the public interest

JOE CLARK
Sixteenth prime minister of Canada

September 10, 2008
Full story.

The immediate question about Canada’s election is not who will win, but how open and inclusive the campaign will be.

Elections can confirm bad practices, or change them. Ours need changing.

The tone of federal politics today is the worst I can remember in my 50 years in public life. Of course, there were angry partisan differences before, but they were tumultuous exceptions to a general rule of common public purpose, even civility. By contrast, the standard today has become consistently bitter and negative – personal invective routinely displaces any serious discussion of issues or differences.

This low standard helps corrode respect for the democratic institutions in which this mean drama plays out. It comes at a bad time, because there has been a general decline in the reputation of politicians, parties, legislatures and other institutions. Cynicism grows. Candidates are hard to attract. Citizens turn away from politics – especially young people, who see nothing to attract or inspire them. That constitutes a long-term threat to the authority of the pan-Canadian political institutions that have always been essential for citizens of this diverse democracy to act positively together.

Obviously, Canada is not the only democracy whose parties and leaders are losing their constituency. But what is striking – now that a Canadian election has been crammed into the shadow of a U.S. presidential campaign – is that we (who preach so much) are continuing our decline, while the American system (which we routinely deride) has broken away emphatically from “business as usual.” In choosing their candidates for president, both American parties reached deliberately beyond their status quo – the Republicans to independent voters who admire John McCain, the Democrats to the young and the idealists who are inspired by Barack Obama.

What might Canada do to break out of our mean political cycle, between now and Oct. 14? One option appears to have been shut down on Monday, with the refusal to allow the Green Party’s Elizabeth May to participate in the leaders debates.

That should be reconsidered. Her participation would demonstrate that Canadian politics is inclusive, not exclusive. Ms. May shares essential democratic attributes with both Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain – the outsider, the person the party establishments sought to exclude, the person with a message that resonates with citizens who’ve grown cynical about, or disaffected from, their political system.

I’ve participated in televised debates, both leading the party that went on to win the election, and leading a “fifth” party. Those debates do not, in themselves, determine election results. But they do allow voters – the citizens who decide our country’s future – to hear the arguments, assess the candidates and make informed decisions.

This would not be a free ride for the Green Party. Ms. May would have to prove herself and make her case, just like other party leaders. But now, unlike those other leaders, she alone is denied that right.

We’re not talking about the Rhinoceros Party. In the 2006 general election, the Greens won 665,940 votes, nearly 5 per cent of the total. Polls published this month by Segma, Ekos and Environics indicate that support for the Greens runs between 7 per cent and 10 per cent, even though the party has never been allowed to make its case in a national leaders debate. In nine provinces and three territories, the Greens have much more support than the Bloc Québécois, which is not only invited to the debates but has the power to veto other participants.

No law forbids Ms. May from joining the other leaders in a televised debate, just as no law forbade Mr. Obama or Mr. McCain from launching their improbable campaigns for a presidential nomination. Instead, the rules that keep her out are determined, in effect, by the political parties that are already in. Technically, the decision is taken by a consortium of the broadcasters who would carry the program; but, in announcing the decision to shut out Ms. May, that consortium has made it clear that the real veto is exercised by the other political parties.

So, it’s a club, whose members set their own rules.

Jason MacDonald, a spokesman for the network consortium, is quoted as saying that three parties – those led by Stephen Harper, Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe – all opposed the participation of Ms. May in the so-called leaders debate, “and it became clear that if the Green Party were included, there would be no leaders debates.”

That’s blackmail. If these three men want to boycott a genuine debate, let them have the courage to do so openly. Let them also explain why, in a year when U.S. party establishments could not shut out an Obama or a McCain, it is appropriate for the Canadian party establishments to muzzle a significant voice for change.

I am not a supporter of any of the existing federal parties, including the Greens. But I am alarmed, and surprised, by how tightly the government now controls Parliament, how easily parties put their own interest ahead of the public interest, and how mean our public debate has become. We have to break that pattern, and one way to begin would be with a more inclusive leaders debate. I urge more Canadians to press these three leaders, and the broadcasting consortium they hide behind, to reconsider their exclusionary decision.

For Canadians concerned about democracy, the question is not why the Green Party should be let in. The question is: Why should the Greens be kept out?


Demand Democratic Debates - www.demanddemocraticdebates.ca