There has been lots of debate about the debates these last few days. The most sensible combination of debates is to have one debate with the four parliamentary leaders, and one with Harper and Ignatieff squaring off. I am very much in favour of democracy, and it is not lightly that I say that Elizabeth May should be excluded. However, to include Elizabeth May in the debates would bring less benefit to the democratic discourse in this country than the cost of including her.
What cost is there? As many concluded from watching the 2008 debates in which May participated, 5 leaders was simply too many. All it ended up being was a 4 person gang up on Stephen Harper. And while I agreed with all of them, I think that so many people made the debate very ineffective. There was little opportunity for real debate between any of the leaders. Instead, May and the others ganged up on the outgoing Prime Minister. In fact, Elizabeth May was the one who was the most confrontational.
I like confrontation in a political debate. But I do not like confrontation masquerading as political debate. This masquerade gets aggravated by May's presence. Having 5 leaders simply makes the debate dysfunctional. The debate is virtually worthless in this format. There is little opportunity to learn anything about a party's policy amidst all the ganging up on Stephen Harper.
Now, if the debate thus becomes worthless, then that is a very big blow to democracy. I am simply not convinced that that blow is compensated by a democratic principle of free expression. We are perfectly willing to limit free expression in the debates in other cases. For instance, the Marxist-Leninists do not participate. Yet if we were striving for perfect equality of expression, they would be present, and every other small party leader. In the case of the Marxist-Leninists, we are willing to recognize that including them would render the debate worthless. A similar thing happens when May gets included.
As for the one on one debate between Harper and Ignatieff, it is important opportunity to have a presentation of the 2 alternatives for government to the Canadian people. This is all the more important if May is included in the debates. Much as Layton thinks he is running for Prime Minister, we all know he is not. He is running to increase the NDP's seat count, to position it in a position from which it might one day offer a candidate for Prime Minister.
A debate between the two front runners is necessary to allow Canadians to see their choices of government, and to escape the cacophony of the leaders' debate. In that debate, the outgoing Prime Minister is oddly at an advantage. Why? Because any gain from attacking him is shared by the opposition parties, whereas the benefits from any major blows the Prime Minister scores accrue solely to him. Also, he can curry some sympathy from some odd voters. In this way, the system actually benefits the Prime Minister and reduces effective choice between governments in waiting.
A one on one debate would vastly increase the probability of Canadians feeling they have a choice. It would make it much more obvious. It would show Canadians a viable alternative to Stephen Harper. Isn't democracy about that among other things: viable alternatives for government? Therefore, it seems that excluding May and setting up a one on one debate might actually lead to more democracy.
(I would also be favourable to a Layton, Harper, Ignatieff debate, though less so. Once you let in Layton, Duceppe will want in. After all, he has more seats than Layton)
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