In 1997, as vice-president of the Citizens' National Coalition, Stephen Harper delivered a speech belittling the divided and regionalistic Canadian political system and implicitly fawning over the two-party system of the United States. Harper's views have hardly changed since then ÂÂ-- he spent the first week of the election laying out a choice between a Conservative parliament and a nonexistent coalition. This time, however, Harper was hardly the only culprit in propagating a "two-way race" theme. The Liberals have been keen on sticking to that message and the media have gone along for the ride. The most tangible result of this sudden focus on the two major parties has been the exclusion of Green Party leader Elizabeth May from the April 12 and 14 leaders' debates.
The process for deciding the format of the debate might seem mind-boggling to somebody unfamiliar with it. The top executives from each major television network get together in a big room and, based on some mysterious criteria that have not been made public, decide when, where, how and most importantly in this case, who.
The consortium did release one reason for the exclusion of the Greens: a lack of seats in the House of Commons. Directly before the 2008 election, the Greens had acquired their first MP -- Blair Wilson -- through a floor-crossing which allowed May to participate in the debate. Well, not quite. Even in 2008, May was initially excluded and only allowed in after a public outcry. So the consortium's claim that the difference this time around is a single floor-crossing Liberal is not only absurd, but also false.
The public opposition to May's exclusion appears to be even more pronounced this time. In addition, none of the other parties' leaders have explicitly opposed May's participation in the debates. This consortium appears to be severely out of step with public opinion and they displayed that by barring a party that received nearly a million votes last election.
It is a flaw in our voting system that a party with such a high percentage of the popular vote is not afforded a seat in our legislature. That, of course, is an issue separate from the consortium's decision. The argument that representation in the House of Commons should be a requirement becomes increasingly flimsy as more Canadians are moving toward third parties despite the media's insistence.
This decision is an enormous disservice to multi-party democracy. As May said, it "verges on sabotage" of the Green Party's efforts to achieve representation in the House. When a party does not receive an equal opportunity to advertise its views, that is an affront to democracy and most Canadians recognise it.
Of course, not every tinfoil hat-wearing loon can have a place at the debate table. But the solution is not complicated: set a minimum popular vote a party must reach in order to take part in the debate. If the large networks don't comply, perhaps it's time to bring the debate under the control of a parliamentary committee or somebody else responsible to the electorate.
It has already been proven that it is hardly difficult to set up a debate independent of what the TV stations set as their criteria. Harper had essentially tried to push Layton and Duceppe out of the picture as well, challenging Ignatieff to an alternative debate. The Liberal leader agreed but, thankfully, Harper backed down from the more articulate politician (although a one-on-one debate with Rick Mercer as moderator might have been more interesting than the election itself).
Of course, it might be true that Canadians are generally fed up with a government that limits reporters to five questions a day, boots anybody suspected of not being a CPC supporter from rallies and uses taxpayer money to contract private companies to stifle dissent on online fora. But the answer does not lie in the media, Ignatieff convincing us that there are only two options or Harper promising to eliminate party subsidies to solidify this in law. The solution lies in reforming our electoral system to allow parties like the NDP and the Greens to translate their support into seats in the House of Commons.
Instead of demonizing coalitions and marginalizing smaller parties, perhaps the two big parties should convince us why they deserve our support. Until then, my vote isn't going to either.