Yes, Let’s Open Up the Federal Debates … To Everyone - New Canadian Media

Yes, Let’s Open Up the Federal Debates … To Everyone

Let’s take a look at the implications of the Conservative Party’s recent decision to bypass the “consortium approach” to televised election debates during this fall’s federal election campaign. The consortium, which has run the debates,…

Let’s take a look at the implications of the Conservative Party’s recent decision to bypass the “consortium approach” to televised election debates during this fall’s federal election campaign.

The consortium, which has run the debates, is a joint venture of CBC, Radio Canada, CTV and Global/Shaw. The consortium, in consultation with the participants, has set the rules of the debates in elections past. The Conservatives have suggested this time as many as five debates and they have accepted offers from Maclean’s magazine (a Rogers company) and TVA, the independent French-language TV network. Most recently, both the New Democratic Party and the Conservatives accepted a request from the Globe and Mail for a debate on the economy.

Yes, this opens up the possibility of new players and potentially new formats. That’s not such a bad thing as the last few federal debates have been stodgy, stiff and most often the only clear winner has been the ever-engaged and bright moderator Steve Paikin, whenever he was moderating. Yes, Paikin for Prime Minister, I say.

I have wondered: in these debates, who speaks for the 20 per cent of the Canadian populace that was born elsewhere.

When we have the news departments at the national broadcasters running the show like some pompous self-appointed guardians of democracy, we know exactly where we are headed.

What we’ll get is their stables of well known journalists predictably sawing away at their favourite hobby horses: the Senate scandals, Canada’s foreign affairs (Mideast, Ukraine), the environment (Kyoto, oil sands, etc.), the middle class, daycare and child poverty. I can predict right now how each party leader will respond, too.

Oh, and this time the consortium of national broadcasters had actually deigned to extend an invitation to the Green Party leader Elizabeth May (which based on recent history could prove to be, well, quite entertaining). They unilaterally shut her out in 2011, but curiously the Bloc head Gilles Duceppe was allowed to participate in the English-language debate, I suppose for the benefit of the handful of Quebecers who don’t parler le français? How does a consortium of unaccountable broadcasters wield that much authority?

New Voices, New Perspectives

Here’s the thing, though. I have wondered: in these debates, who speaks for the 20 per cent of the Canadian populace that was born elsewhere, and if you add in their children, we are approaching 30 per cent of the populace. Oh yes, if there is a very posed “average Canadian” person-on-the-street question dropped into each debate segment, they’ll find a token Raj or a Sarabjit to ask a question for a brief on-screen cameo. Yeah, thanks.

[W]hat a lot of new Canadians want to know about may not get asked when a media conglomerate pulls the strings. For example: immigration questions, extension of healthcare benefits to elderly immigrants, or stability of the economy.

But what a lot of new Canadians want to know about may not get asked when a media conglomerate pulls the strings. For example: immigration questions, extension of healthcare benefits to elderly immigrants, or stability of the economy, fundamental questions about governance, whether Parliament works, simplification of the tax codes, etc. What qualifies each leader to be Prime Minister (PM)? Or for that matter, something as bread-and-butter as what the leaders will do to bring down monthly cell phone carrier fees.

New Canadians are interested in protections of religious and cultural rights and accommodation, access to education, streamlining the immigration process, family violence, cultural adaptation, settlement services and increased and improved minority representation. Will the entrenched legacy media know how to address such issues or how to put the questions to the leaders?

If we move beyond the fishbowl culture of the press gallery and parliamentarians, we might start asking some different questions such as each leader’s philosophy of governing and the rightful role of government.

Should we tax citizens aim to change their behaviours, or offer them incentives to achieve the same objectives? Is government best operating quietly in the background, like the government of Louis St. Laurent? Or as an engaged and active shaper of the society, like we had with Pierre Trudeau? How do we improve the ridiculously poor decorum of the House of Commons?

Who is going to ask about putting an end to Aboriginal poverty? How do we improve quality of life on reserves? How do we aid Aboriginal peoples to stand alone?

I argue for opening up the process; for a format that actually gives Canada’s so-called “ethnic” media a seat at the debate table. We need to include new voices with new perspectives.

In short, I argue for opening up the process; for a format that actually gives Canada’s so-called “ethnic” media a seat at the debate table. We need to include new voices with new perspectives.

It makes no sense to leave the multicultural media out of the equation. While traditional media are struggling, by all accounts, so called “ethnic media” in Canada is holding its own and actually proliferating. Why isn’t someone from one of the multilingual broadcasters – or established print and electronic publications like this one, for example – at the table?

One more thing – and I say this as a former Executive Producer and Host of public affairs TV programs – why not take the debates out of the hot lights of the airtight studio or at the very least add an in-studio audience that in its composition reflects ALL Canadians? It would make for better, more engaging TV.


Richard M. Landau has been responsible for adjudicating disputes and enforcing a television network code of ethics in a religious broadcasting setting since 1992. He is a graduate of Carleton University and the University of Ottawa. A leader in interfaith dialogue, Landau has consulted with the U.K. Home Office, and the White House Office of Community- and Faith-Based Initiatives. He works closely with leadership in all of the major world religions. He is author of What the World Needs to Know about Interfaith Dialogue.

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