“@pmharper A one-on-one debate? Any time. Any place.”
– Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, March 30, 2011

“Tom Mulcair will debate Stephen Harper anytime, anyplace.”
– NDP campaign director Anne McGrath, August 11, 2015

By the time Canadians go to the polls on October 19th, the leaders of the four major federal parties will have faced each other in just one televised English-language debate. It happened on August 6th.

Though the Greens hold two seats in Parliament and have nominated candidates across the country, Elizabeth May isn’t invited to the Globe and Mail/Google Canada debate on September 17th, the Munk Debates’ event on September 28th, or TVA’s French-language debate on October 2nd. She’ll be part of a French-language debate hosted by a consortium of broadcasters on September 24th, but the two other debates in which she would be included – the English-language consortium debate on October 8th and a debate on women’s issues – now seem unlikely to happen at all.

Ms. May blames Thomas Mulcair. The NDP leader says he won’t take part in any debate that Stephen Harper skips, which gives the Prime Minister a veto. To Ms. May, that smacks of collusion to keep her on the sidelines.

“This stinks to high heaven,” she told the Canadian Press late last month. “Tom Mulcair has just killed the best opportunity that Canadian voters had to get accountability from a sitting prime minister from opposition party leaders in the forum that reaches the most Canadians.”

Speaking to the Huffington Post last week, Ms. May went further:

Do we really think Stephen Harper would boycott debates 10 days before the election? At which Thomas Mulcair, Justin Trudeau, me and the Bloc Québécois are going to show up? With an empty podium there? It’s unthinkable. The only way that Stephen Harper will get away with it is if Tom Mulcair helps him.

If you believe Ms. May, then Mr. Mulcair is responsible for her exclusion from all but one English-language debate. Even if you don’t accept her view, however, it’s still tough not to hold Mr. Mulcair’s silence against him; where Justin Trudeau has called for Ms. May to be invited to the Munk Debates event, for instance, Mr. Mulcair has not.

Without addressing on its merits the question of whether Ms. May’s party deserves a podium, it’s interesting to juxtapose Mr. Mulcair’s attitude towards her participation in leaders’ debates – falling, as it apparently does, somewhere between indifference and antipathy – with the NDP’s support for proportional representation. Can he credibly be for one but not the other?

“The last unfair election”

Writing in Common Ground magazine earlier this year, Mr. Mulcair confirmed his party’s longstanding promise to change Canada’s electoral system:

In the last election, Conservatives formed a majority government with only 39% of the vote. In our current first-past-the-post system, they govern as if they have the support of all Canadians, but the fact is 61% of voters wanted someone else in government.

Around the world, advanced democracies have recognized the flaws of this winner-take-all system and have adopted a better model that works….

An election is coming. Now it’s up to Canadians to get involved, voice their support for better, fairer representation and ultimately exercise their right to vote.

Now it’s up to Canadians to make the next election the last unfair election.

In December 2014, NDP MP Craig Scott introduced a non-binding motion in the House of Commons calling for a “mixed-member proportional” system. As he explained to Maclean’s:

From the voter’s perspective, [mixed-member proportional representation] can be thought of, more informally, as a “one ballot, two votes” system. When a voter goes into the voting booth, she is faced with two choices to make, two votes to cast.

She first ticks which candidate she wishes to become the local constituency MP—as voters currently do. But she then has a second vote. On the ballot, she turns to a regional list of names presented for election by the party she prefers to have the most seats in the House of Commons. Under the NDP’s preferred system, she then decides whether to tick the party name alone (and thereby accept the existing order of the names on the list) or tick the name of a person on the list whom she wants to see go to the House of Commons ahead of others on the list. The MPs going to the House of Commons from each party are a mix of the local constituency MPs and the regional (list) MPs.

The NDP’s preferred form of proportional representation may or may not be worth adopting. The Liberals, for instance, have also vowed to change the voting system, but only after further parliamentary study of a number of alternatives, including ranked ballots. But what’s relevant to the debate about debates is the NDP’s rationale for changing the voting system at all. On that subject, here’s Mr. Scott:

[I]n our current system, voters have a single vote that is supposed to integrate one’s preference for which person should be MP and also one’s preference of a party to support….

In contrast … [under] mixed-member proportional representation, a citizen can vote for a local MP from one party (or for an Independent) with her first vote and choose a different party to support with her second vote. This ability to separate the party from the local riding candidate makes it easier for local MPs to receive the support of people of all political stripes and to be supported for their constituency-representation credentials, versus only for the party they happen to belong to….

[Proportional representation] helps to increase voter turnout, because people no longer see their votes as “wasted.” It [also] ensures that representation from a region is not dominated by monolithic blocks of MPs from a single party; for example, 27 of 28 of MPs from Alberta and 13 of 14 from Saskatchewan are Conservative MPs, which completely distorts the diversity of perspectives of those populations.

Proportional representation, the NDP says, frees voters from a perceived obligation to vote for local candidates whose parties stand a more reasonable chance of forming government after the election. This helps minor parties that might otherwise win fewer (or no) seats in Parliament – like, say, the Greens. The underlying presumption is that the distribution of seats in the House of Commons ought better to represent the breadth of the electorate’s views. Democracy demands, in Mr. Scott’s words, a “diversity of perspectives”.

In defending his party’s proportional-representation proposal – and to persuade Canadians that he would keep his promise to implement it – Mr. Mulcair took pains to emphasize the NDP’s selflessness:

For years, governing parties in Canada have talked about electoral reform, but have failed to make it a priority. More often than not, those in government are afforded a majority without a plurality of the votes[,] so there is little incentive to change.

That is one of the ways a New Democrat government will be different. Had the 2011 election used proportional representation, despite the NDP’s electoral gains, New Democrats would have actually had fewer seats in Parliament. Even still, we believe that democratic reform is critical to improving the health of Canada’s democracy. For New Democrats, it’s a matter of principle. Proportional representation would better represent Canadians across the country.

Electoral reform is thus “a matter of principle” for the NDP, because it “would better represent Canadians across the country”. One might respond to Mr. Mulcair’s claim by pointing out that, in six provinces, the NDP itself is among “those in government [who have been] afforded a majority without a plurality of the votes” and who consequently have had “little incentive to change”. Despite having held power in most of the country, New Democrats don’t appear ever to have put electoral reform on the table when they’ve had an opportunity to achieve it; the three provinces that have seriously considered changes to the voting system – British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, and Prince Edward Island – have done so under Liberal, Progressive Conservative, and Péquiste governments. To this, Mr. Mulcair replies that, this time, voters can trust the NDP to defy its own track record. The proof, he says, is his magnanimity; his party supports proportional representation even though its own electoral prospects demand otherwise.

Which brings us back to the leaders’ debates. If we are to take Mr. Mulcair’s word on electoral reform because, as “a matter of principle”, the NDP believes in “better represent[ing] Canadians across the country”, its own interests be damned, then what are we to make of his complicity – or, if you believe Ms. May, his collusion – in excluding the Greens from nearly every leaders’ debate?

Podium politics

“It almost makes me nostalgic, I can’t believe I’m going to say this, for the consortium,” Rudyard Griffiths told CBC’s Power and Politics last week, referring to the cartel of broadcasters that has historically monopolized the planning of leaders’ debates. Mr. Griffiths runs the Munk Debates, and the parties’ politicking has apparently pushed him over the edge. His proposal:

We need a national debates commission. Something that is independent, something that has legitimacy, and something that sets the rules months in advance of the election so that no one party is making its decisions and calculations through what its poll numbers are.

It should be no surprise that the party leaders – or, more accurately, their proxies – seek political advantage through debate negotiations. Few would question Mr. Griffiths’ perception that each party “mak[es] its decisions … through what its poll numbers are”.

The NDP is evidently no different. As he contends for power, Mr. Mulcair’s refuses to participate in any debate unless Mr. Harper first agrees to do so. Mr. Trudeau’s name is conspicuously absent from the NDP’s comments on the subject. There is no indication that they have made any effort to ensure Ms. May’s inclusion. Mr. Mulcair’s machinations indicate that, like Michael Ignatieff in 2011, he sees the debate negotiations as an opportunity to frame the election as a choice between Mr. Harper and himself. We’ll see how that works this time.

But what of “better represent[ing] Canadians across the country”? In the context of electoral reform, that’s the “matter of principle” to which Mr. Mulcair promises to adhere, notwithstanding the NDP’s track record in government and its own interests to the contrary. If leaders’ debates inform Canadians’ voting decisions, and those decisions ought to be, in Mr. Mulcair’s words, “better represent[ed]” in the composition of Parliament, then surely they should also be “better represent[ed]” in the debates themselves.

That would mean including Ms. May.

The Greens won 3.91% of the popular vote in 2011. Had that support been proportionally represented in Parliament, Ms. May would lead a 12-member caucus in the Commons. 12 seats would mean official party status, which happens to be the threshold that the organizers of both the Globe/Google and Munk debates have set for inviting leaders to their respective events – and, by extension, their rationale for excluding Ms. May. If Mr. Mulcair is truly committed to proportional representation, then it ought to be difficult for him to justify leaving the Greens on the sidelines when, if Canada had the electoral system that he says he supports, they would have been invited in the first place.

Yet, in his pre-debate political manoeuvring, Mr. Mulcair seems quite clearly to have put his party’s electoral prospects ahead of the very same principles he says are indifferent to those prospects where proportional representation is concerned. On that basis, one might reasonably question whether, if he were to become Prime Minister after a first-past-the-post (FPTP) election, Mr. Mulcair’s behaviour might more closely track the NDP’s record in government – and his own actions in the debate negotiations – than his pre-election rhetoric.

He will certainly face pressure from within his own party to break his word. After the NDP’s historic victory in Alberta earlier this year, for example, a senior NDP operative urged B.C. NDP leader John Horgan to drop his party’s commitment to proportional representation – just as his Alberta counterpart, Rachel Notley, had done a few months before:

The Alberta New Democratic Party did a very smart thing in drawing up its 2015 provincial election platform – it dropped a promise to impose a proportional representation electoral system….

FPTP has served Canada well – as it has the United Kingdom, United States, India and other countries representing almost half of the world’s democratic voters….

Under proportional representation Alberta’s Notley would likely not be premier…. The NDP’s 40.5 per cent vote would have meant only 35 seats instead of the 54 it won…. For progressive voters who want change, the current first-past-the-post system delivered it effectively in Alberta….

These exact arguments would apply with equal force in the aftermath of an NDP victory under Canada’s current electoral system. Mr. Mulcair says that, history and self-interest be damned, he’ll ignore them. Time may tell. For now, whether his actions speak louder than his words is for voters to decide.

“@pmharper A one-on-one debate? Any time. Any place.”
– Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, March 30, 2011

“Tom Mulcair will debate Stephen Harper anytime, anyplace.”
– NDP campaign director Anne McGrath, August 11, 2015

By the time Canadians go to the polls on October 19th, the leaders of the four major federal parties will have faced each other in just one televised English-language debate. It happened on August 6th.

Though the Greens hold two seats in Parliament and have nominated candidates across the country, Elizabeth May isn’t invited to the Globe and Mail/Google Canada debate on September 17th, the Munk Debates’ event on September 28th, or TVA’s French-language debate on October 2nd. She’ll be part of a French-language debate hosted by a consortium of broadcasters on September 24th, but the two other debates in which she would be included – the English-language consortium debate on October 8th and a debate on women’s issues – now seem unlikely to happen at all.

Ms. May blames Thomas Mulcair. The NDP leader says he won’t take part in any debate that Stephen Harper skips, which gives the Prime Minister a veto. To Ms. May, that smacks of collusion to keep her on the sidelines.

“This stinks to high heaven,” she told the Canadian Press late last month. “Tom Mulcair has just killed the best opportunity that Canadian voters had to get accountability from a sitting prime minister from opposition party leaders in the forum that reaches the most Canadians.”

Speaking to the Huffington Post last week, Ms. May went further:

Do we really think Stephen Harper would boycott debates 10 days before the election? At which Thomas Mulcair, Justin Trudeau, me and the Bloc Québécois are going to show up? With an empty podium there? It’s unthinkable. The only way that Stephen Harper will get away with it is if Tom Mulcair helps him.

If you believe Ms. May, then Mr. Mulcair is responsible for her exclusion from all but one English-language debate. Even if you don’t accept her view, however, it’s still tough not to hold Mr. Mulcair’s silence against him; where Justin Trudeau has called for Ms. May to be invited to the Munk Debates event, for instance, Mr. Mulcair has not.

Without addressing on its merits the question of whether Ms. May’s party deserves a podium, it’s interesting to juxtapose Mr. Mulcair’s attitude towards her participation in leaders’ debates – falling, as it apparently does, somewhere between indifference and antipathy – with the NDP’s support for proportional representation. Can he credibly be for one but not the other?

“The last unfair election”

Writing in Common Ground magazine earlier this year, Mr. Mulcair confirmed his party’s longstanding promise to change Canada’s electoral system:

In the last election, Conservatives formed a majority government with only 39% of the vote. In our current first-past-the-post system, they govern as if they have the support of all Canadians, but the fact is 61% of voters wanted someone else in government.

Around the world, advanced democracies have recognized the flaws of this winner-take-all system and have adopted a better model that works….

An election is coming. Now it’s up to Canadians to get involved, voice their support for better, fairer representation and ultimately exercise their right to vote.

Now it’s up to Canadians to make the next election the last unfair election.

In December 2014, NDP MP Craig Scott introduced a non-binding motion in the House of Commons calling for a “mixed-member proportional” system. As he explained to Maclean’s:

From the voter’s perspective, [mixed-member proportional representation] can be thought of, more informally, as a “one ballot, two votes” system. When a voter goes into the voting booth, she is faced with two choices to make, two votes to cast.

She first ticks which candidate she wishes to become the local constituency MP—as voters currently do. But she then has a second vote. On the ballot, she turns to a regional list of names presented for election by the party she prefers to have the most seats in the House of Commons. Under the NDP’s preferred system, she then decides whether to tick the party name alone (and thereby accept the existing order of the names on the list) or tick the name of a person on the list whom she wants to see go to the House of Commons ahead of others on the list. The MPs going to the House of Commons from each party are a mix of the local constituency MPs and the regional (list) MPs.

The NDP’s preferred form of proportional representation may or may not be worth adopting. The Liberals, for instance, have also vowed to change the voting system, but only after further parliamentary study of a number of alternatives, including ranked ballots. But what’s relevant to the debate about debates is the NDP’s rationale for changing the voting system at all. On that subject, here’s Mr. Scott:

[I]n our current system, voters have a single vote that is supposed to integrate one’s preference for which person should be MP and also one’s preference of a party to support….

In contrast … [under] mixed-member proportional representation, a citizen can vote for a local MP from one party (or for an Independent) with her first vote and choose a different party to support with her second vote. This ability to separate the party from the local riding candidate makes it easier for local MPs to receive the support of people of all political stripes and to be supported for their constituency-representation credentials, versus only for the party they happen to belong to….

[Proportional representation] helps to increase voter turnout, because people no longer see their votes as “wasted.” It [also] ensures that representation from a region is not dominated by monolithic blocks of MPs from a single party; for example, 27 of 28 of MPs from Alberta and 13 of 14 from Saskatchewan are Conservative MPs, which completely distorts the diversity of perspectives of those populations.

Proportional representation, the NDP says, frees voters from a perceived obligation to vote for local candidates whose parties stand a more reasonable chance of forming government after the election. This helps minor parties that might otherwise win fewer (or no) seats in Parliament – like, say, the Greens. The underlying presumption is that the distribution of seats in the House of Commons ought better to represent the breadth of the electorate’s views. Democracy demands, in Mr. Scott’s words, a “diversity of perspectives”.

In defending his party’s proportional-representation proposal – and to persuade Canadians that he would keep his promise to implement it – Mr. Mulcair took pains to emphasize the NDP’s selflessness:

For years, governing parties in Canada have talked about electoral reform, but have failed to make it a priority. More often than not, those in government are afforded a majority without a plurality of the votes[,] so there is little incentive to change.

That is one of the ways a New Democrat government will be different. Had the 2011 election used proportional representation, despite the NDP’s electoral gains, New Democrats would have actually had fewer seats in Parliament. Even still, we believe that democratic reform is critical to improving the health of Canada’s democracy. For New Democrats, it’s a matter of principle. Proportional representation would better represent Canadians across the country.

Electoral reform is thus “a matter of principle” for the NDP, because it “would better represent Canadians across the country”. One might respond to Mr. Mulcair’s claim by pointing out that, in six provinces, the NDP itself is among “those in government [who have been] afforded a majority without a plurality of the votes” and who consequently have had “little incentive to change”. Despite having held power in most of the country, New Democrats don’t appear ever to have put electoral reform on the table when they’ve had an opportunity to achieve it; the three provinces that have seriously considered changes to the voting system – British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, and Prince Edward Island – have done so under Liberal, Progressive Conservative, and Péquiste governments. To this, Mr. Mulcair replies that, this time, voters can trust the NDP to defy its own track record. The proof, he says, is his magnanimity; his party supports proportional representation even though its own electoral prospects demand otherwise.

Which brings us back to the leaders’ debates. If we are to take Mr. Mulcair’s word on electoral reform because, as “a matter of principle”, the NDP believes in “better represent[ing] Canadians across the country”, its own interests be damned, then what are we to make of his complicity – or, if you believe Ms. May, his collusion – in excluding the Greens from nearly every leaders’ debate?

Podium politics

“It almost makes me nostalgic, I can’t believe I’m going to say this, for the consortium,” Rudyard Griffiths told CBC’s Power and Politics last week, referring to the cartel of broadcasters that has historically monopolized the planning of leaders’ debates. Mr. Griffiths runs the Munk Debates, and the parties’ politicking has apparently pushed him over the edge. His proposal:

We need a national debates commission. Something that is independent, something that has legitimacy, and something that sets the rules months in advance of the election so that no one party is making its decisions and calculations through what its poll numbers are.

It should be no surprise that the party leaders – or, more accurately, their proxies – seek political advantage through debate negotiations. Few would question Mr. Griffiths’ perception that each party “mak[es] its decisions … through what its poll numbers are”.

The NDP is evidently no different. As he contends for power, Mr. Mulcair’s refuses to participate in any debate unless Mr. Harper first agrees to do so. Mr. Trudeau’s name is conspicuously absent from the NDP’s comments on the subject. There is no indication that they have made any effort to ensure Ms. May’s inclusion. Mr. Mulcair’s machinations indicate that, like Michael Ignatieff in 2011, he sees the debate negotiations as an opportunity to frame the election as a choice between Mr. Harper and himself. We’ll see how that works this time.

But what of “better represent[ing] Canadians across the country”? In the context of electoral reform, that’s the “matter of principle” to which Mr. Mulcair promises to adhere, notwithstanding the NDP’s track record in government and its own interests to the contrary. If leaders’ debates inform Canadians’ voting decisions, and those decisions ought to be, in Mr. Mulcair’s words, “better represent[ed]” in the composition of Parliament, then surely they should also be “better represent[ed]” in the debates themselves.

That would mean including Ms. May.

The Greens won 3.91% of the popular vote in 2011. Had that support been proportionally represented in Parliament, Ms. May would lead a 12-member caucus in the Commons. 12 seats would mean official party status, which happens to be the threshold that the organizers of both the Globe/Google and Munk debates have set for inviting leaders to their respective events – and, by extension, their rationale for excluding Ms. May. If Mr. Mulcair is truly committed to proportional representation, then it ought to be difficult for him to justify leaving the Greens on the sidelines when, if Canada had the electoral system that he says he supports, they would have been invited in the first place.

Yet, in his pre-debate political manoeuvring, Mr. Mulcair seems quite clearly to have put his party’s electoral prospects ahead of the very same principles he says are indifferent to those prospects where proportional representation is concerned. On that basis, one might reasonably question whether, if he were to become Prime Minister after a first-past-the-post (FPTP) election, Mr. Mulcair’s behaviour might more closely track the NDP’s record in government – and his own actions in the debate negotiations – than his pre-election rhetoric.

He will certainly face pressure from within his own party to break his word. After the NDP’s historic victory in Alberta earlier this year, for example, a senior NDP operative urged B.C. NDP leader John Horgan to drop his party’s commitment to proportional representation – just as his Alberta counterpart, Rachel Notley, had done a few months before:

The Alberta New Democratic Party did a very smart thing in drawing up its 2015 provincial election platform – it dropped a promise to impose a proportional representation electoral system….

FPTP has served Canada well – as it has the United Kingdom, United States, India and other countries representing almost half of the world’s democratic voters….

Under proportional representation Alberta’s Notley would likely not be premier…. The NDP’s 40.5 per cent vote would have meant only 35 seats instead of the 54 it won…. For progressive voters who want change, the current first-past-the-post system delivered it effectively in Alberta….

These exact arguments would apply with equal force in the aftermath of an NDP victory under Canada’s current electoral system. Mr. Mulcair says that, history and self-interest be damned, he’ll ignore them. Time may tell. For now, whether his actions speak louder than his words is for voters to decide.

Photo by Tavis Ford licensed under CC BY 2.0