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The First Past the Post: We deserve to be heard PDF Print E-mail
Justice News
Posted by Joan Russow
Monday, 23 November 2015 12:04

Publication: Globe and Mail
Date: Wednesday, November 8, 2000
Section: Comment

Canada's election debates should not be limited to the establishment parties,
says Green Party Leader JOAN RUSSOW

November 8 2000

You will not see or hear from the Green Party in the French 
television debates this evening, or the English debates tomorrow, so 
you won't hear about a great many issues that should be fundamental 
to this election.

Ideally, an election is an opportunity for all registered political 
parties to inform the public about issues. When the Governor-General, 
at the request of the Prime Minister, agrees to dissolve Parliament, 
the slate is presumably wiped clean. Members of Parliament lose their 
seats and all registered parties become equal.

The reality, however, is that a committee of media members has 
already determined that coverage, including participation in 
televised leaders' debates, is to be based on whether a party has 
elected members to the previous House of Commons. The result is that 
the media determine what parties are "of worth."

Ironically, the media's own regulator, the CRTC, sets forth that "the 
broadcaster does not enjoy the position of a benevolent censor who is 
able to give the public only what it 'should' know. Nor is it the 
broadcaster's role to decide in advance which candidates are worthy 
of broadcast time." The CRTC regulations also state that the public's 
right to be informed on all issues and candidates "is a 
quintessential one for the effective functioning of a democracy, 
particularly at election time."

One issue that the public has a "right to be informed" about is the 
serious health, environment, equity and economic consequences of 
genetically engineered foods and crops. None of the five parties "of 
worth," when in power federally or provincially, took the opportunity 
to prohibit the testing or growing of these foods.

The federal Conservatives were negligent for initiating trials of 
genetically engineered foods and crops back in 1988. The Liberals 
permitted more trials and then approved genetically engineered corn, 
canola oil, potatoes, tomatoes and squash. The NDP in Saskatchewan 
established an "innovation centre," partnering with Monsanto and 
other agribusiness companies. The Canadian Alliance's provincial 
partners in Alberta and Ontario and the Bloc Québécois's partner in 
Quebec have permitted trials and condoned the growing of these crops.

I predict that you will not hear discussion in this week's debates on 
any of the following issues:

Moving away from the overconsumptive model of development and 
creating a more meaningful measure of economic growth that does not discount 
disasters and environmental degradation;

Addressing changes resulting from globalization, downsizing, and 
other economic disruptions to help affected workers and communities;

Withdrawing from NAFTA, and dismantling the WTO;

Addressing climate change through substantially reducing 
greenhouse-gas emissions and through conserving carbon sinks, such as 
bogs and old growth forests;

Moving away from car dependency and promoting public transportation;

Ending the reimbursement of 50 per cent of election expenses from the 
public purse by candidates who receive 15 per cent of the popular 

Conserving biodiversity on public and private lands;

Reducing the military budget and military contracts and transferring 
the savings into health care, education, transportation, and housing;

Decriminalizing marijuana and instituting harm-reduction programs to 
address drug addiction;

Converting agribusiness to chemical-free organic agriculture;

Banning and phasing out uranium mining, and civil nuclear reactors, 
and prohibiting support for the nuclear-arms industry; phasing out 
fossil fuels and promoting solar, wind, and low-impact energy 

Addressing the disproportionate amount of taxes paid by individuals 
compared to corporations.

An election should be an opportunity to discuss new ideas, not just 
to recycle faded political rhetoric. How are we to know if Canadians 
have strong opinions on any of these issues if they are not a part of 
the officially sanctioned debating process, and if the leaders of the 
major parties aren't forced to address them on TV?

The CRTC regulations are fair but unfairly applied; the Elections Act 
is substantively unfair but scrupulously applied. In Canada, the 
parties "of worth" were all elected under the "First Past the Post" 
system. This system has been largely discarded by the world's other 
democracies, as it often results in citizens facing the dilemma of 
voting for the party they want less to prevent the one they want 
least from being elected. This system encourages "strategic voting," 
and in turn results in the election of fewer political parties, 
women, First Nations and minorities. MPs are elected through this 
unfair system and the media then perpetuate the cycle.

Meanwhile, in the United States, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, a 
credible candidate with fresh ideas for America, was also barred from 
televised debates. The bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates 
ruled that he didn't meet its criteria of having a reasonable chance 
of winning. Mr. Nader maintains, probably correctly, that he would 
easily surpass those criteria if he were allowed to debate. He is 
suing the CPD, saying it has "sowed the seeds of its own future 
political destruction." To replace it, Mr. Nader calls for a People's 
Debate Commission in which unions and community organizations will 
sponsor numerous debates of varying formats.

There is actually a precedent for a Green Party of Canada leader to 
be included in a televised debate along with the five parties "of 
worth." During the last federal election, in 1997, I was invited to 
participate as the sixth party leader in a debate on First Nations 
issues. I read through a 5,000 page Royal Commission Report on 
Aboriginal Issues, and then flew to Ottawa to debate the other 
leaders. When I arrived, I found out that the other leaders were not 
willing to discuss First Nations issues and the Royal Commission 
Report. Instead, they sent along a surrogate and a sheet of paper 
containing a statement with their photos.

As a result of this experience, I concluded that a better format than 
the current debates would be to produce multiple televised 
discussions on various issues among all the party leaders. Any leader 
of any party would be welcome to debate each topic. Not all leaders 
would choose to discuss every issue, as was the case with the 1997 
First Nations debate, but this system would guarantee "the citizens' 
right to be informed" on the issues.

The federal election in Canada and the U.S. election with Mr. Nader 
are currently demonstrating the need for fundamental electoral reform 
and fair coverage in both Canada and the United States. We must move 
beyond the current system and strive for more inclusive public 
debate. Joan Russow is leader of the Green Party of Canada

Last Updated on Thursday, 04 October 2018 08:28

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