Elizabeth May kept out of leaders’ debates by ‘old boys’ club’

By Sherry Noik

Maybe it’s because she’s a woman. Maybe it’s because she’s a threat. Maybe it’s because they can. Or maybe it’s all of the above.

Whatever the reasons, three of four organizations hosting federal leaders’ debates ahead of October’s election have excluded Green Party Leader Elizabeth May — and experts say the “old boys’ club” wants it that way.

One political studies professor says a lack of codified, transparent rules around leaders’ debates allows the status quo to continue.

In contrast to the United States, where there is an independent, arm’s-length debates commission, says Jonathan Rose of Queen’s University, debates in Canada are “at the whim of” the leaders and the Election Broadcasting Consortium (EBC), an informal committee made up of CBC, CTV, Global TV and French broadcaster TVA that has hosted the official debates for decades.

“One solution is to take it out of the hands of the consortium and party leaders and recognize this is a fundamental part of an election so lets have some rules around it,” Rose says.

“There has been a sort of institutional inertia. I think because of the old boys’ club, there hasn’t really been any scrutiny or, frankly, desire to change that. It doesn’t serve the interests of the main parties to change it now,” Rose says.

May has been shut out of TVA’s French-language debate and events being put on by the non-profit Munk Foundation and the Globe and Mail. The Globe said in a statement that it only invited to its debate leaders of parties “that have official status in the House of Commons” — by definition, parties with at least 12 sitting MPs.

Yet history is full of examples that repudiate the “official party” criterion: Reform Party Leader Preston Manning in 1993, when he had just one MP in the House and no seat of his own; the Progressive Conservatives (now the CPC), holding just two seats, in 1997; and the NDP in successive debates long before they had the required 12 seats.

That was back when the consortium was the only game in town. The new format of the upcoming debates, one expert says, is “tailoring these debates to create a product.” But, he says, there is an “easy fix.”

“You set the threshold for participation at X amount of the popular vote,” says David Moscrop, a political science PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia. “It’s not a perfect solution but it ends the stupid argument we have every four years.”

Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch and a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa, agrees.

“Any party that has a sitting MP and/or received 5 per cent of the popular vote in the last election should be allowed to participate in every debate,” he told Yahoo Canada News on Monday. “The long-term solution is to have Elections Canada organize and run these debates, and no one else, so the rules are always fair.”

Public opinion sides with them.

In an EKOS Research poll earlier this year, more than two-thirds (68 per cent) of Canadians surveyed said they wanted May included in the leaders’ debates.

There is no precedent for excluding a party leader from debates — aside from the last time May was shut out, in 2011.

May was included in the 2008 debates, only after a public outcry prompted the Conservative Party and the NDP to drop their ultimatum to boycott them if the Green Party was included.

It’s probably too late for this year’s debates, but Moscrop says it’s “incumbent” on the other leaders to change the system.

“If the leaders really cared about democracy and thought debates were important they would say they wouldn’t participate in any debate that didn’t include her,” he says.

May will participate in the debate hosted by Maclean’s magazine and in the consortium’s English-language debate, which Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau publicly supported.

But both Trudeau and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair have so far been silent on her participation in the three other debates. Trudeau and Mulcair did not respond to requests for comment.

Each of the other parties has something to lose if May participates.

The NDP would have to face off with a party that has a lot of “ideological affinity,” Rose says. The Liberals’ environmental plank would be weakened by the Greens’. And May’s recognized speaking skills — her parliamentary colleagues voted her Best Orator in the House of Commons last year — are likely to be “gaffe-inducing” for the Conservatives.

May has suggested — or, rather, retweeted suggestions — that the inaction of the other leaders may be a case of misogyny.


But Rose wouldn’t go that far.

“I think their behaviour suggests they’re sufficiently not sensitive to issues of gender in politics, so put that in the mix.”