Debate battle in full swing once again

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Sun Media, Friday, April 1, 2011

Welcome to the debate over the debate, a hardy perennial of Canadian election campaigns. In the first week of every campaign, sure as Canada geese fly south in the fall, there's a noisy argument about who should be in the leaders' debates, and what the format should be.

So here we are again, arguing about whether Elizabeth May of the Green Party should be included, as she was in 2008.

The consortium of five TV networks says no, she shouldn't. The leaders of the four other parties are either folding on the question, as Michael Ignatieff has, or feigning indifference, which is the position of Stephen Harper. He just doesn't want to be isolated and blamed as the meanie who shut a woman out of the debate.

This is what happened when she played the feminist card in 2008. All the other leaders folded like cheap suits. She hasn't resorted to that as yet in the current dispute. Rather, she's

saying her Charter rights are being violated, and she's threatening to take the networks to court to stop the debate if she's not in it. She's also trying to mobilize public outrage on various Internet platforms.

The consortium is trying to hold the line that she was eventually included in the 2008 debates because she had persuaded a former Liberal MP, Blair Wilson, to become a Green caucus of one, just before the writ dropped.

The consortium's position now is to cite that as precedent. In the 1993 election, Reform leader Preston Manning was included in the debates because he also had one MP in the House, Deb Grey.

So precedent has it that if your party is represented in the House, you're in the debates, and if you're not, you're not.

One solution might be to include May in the English debate by giving Duceppe the night off, but of course that would be an affront to Quebec, and we could never have that.

Then there's the wrangle over the format. Harper and Iggy were all a-Twitter Wednesday about going one-on-one, mano a mano. "Any time, any place," Iggy tweeted in response to Harper suggesting it. Last time that happened was the 1984 debate on women's issues between Brian Mulroney and John Turner. If someone tried that today, all the other leaders would turn up uninvited. As it is, Jack Layton says Canadians wouldn't stand for him being excluded.

At the end of the day, the networks are offering one-on-ones within the context of the four leaders being on stage together. That will provide Iggy with his one opportunity for a knockout punch of Harper. This is what happened in 1984 when Mulroney told Turner, "You had an option, sir, you could have said no," to the raft of patronage appointments as the election was called, and as in 1988 when Turner told Mulroney "you have sold us out" on free trade.

Hopefully the leaders will be at separate podiums this time, not sitting around the same table as in 2008.

Remember? The debate degenerated into a group-therapy session when each leader was asked to say something nice about the person on his or her left. May allowed that Harper was a good father.

It was pathetic. Let's not go there again.

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