Anyone following the provincial election on PEI knows there's been a dust-up over who can participate in CBC Television's Compass Leader's Debate. It's the most anticipated of the debates, with a huge audience, putting the leaders and CBC journalists through a stiff test. Someone (in Charlottetown, Halifax, Toronto? no one seems to want to take ownership) has decided to limit the debate to just two (the Liberals and the Conservatives) of the five party leaders ((NDP, Greens, and the Island Party are the others). The ousted leaders are quite rightly outraged, and to her credit Conservative Leader Olive Crane has said she won't participate unless the others are in, and Liberal leader and current premier Robert Ghiz says he certainly won't stand there by himself.
For what it's worth this is a letter I sent to a number of CBC managers, and senior producers.
I certainly understand the temptation to limit the Leaders Debate on Compass to the two main parties, we had a similar “discussion” each election during my time at CBC. Let’s get the two people who have the only possible chance of becoming premier and have them go head to head on the issues of the day. It will force the two into a true debate, and give viewers a much cleaner look at the choice they have to make. I suspect the addition of the Island Party and Billy Cann was just one fringe party too many for some. I argued then and now that it’s a mistake.
Yes Billy Cann won’t become premier, but if the Island Party becomes a home for disenchanted rural liberals who can’t/won’t vote Conservative (Olive Crane would not have been elected without Larry McGuire taking votes from the Liberals), then the Island Party will have an impact, and possibly an important impact, on the results.
This sends a very negative message to young Islanders, many of whom (like many in my generation) first get involved in politics (a good thing in a democracy) by being attracted to protest parties. The Greens have probably taken over from the NDP now as that party, but the CBC decision says these parties don’t matter. What it really does is reinforce to these young people that the CBC doesn’t matter, and that’s a shame.
The argument that all leaders will be on Radio, and in news stories may sound nice in the CBC bunker, but Compass is still the CBC for many, many Islanders (both in raw numbers and symbolically). All they’ll hear on the radio they listen to is that Compass won’t include three party leaders in a “leaders debate”. That will quickly become the CBC won’t allow these leaders in on the debate on the public broadcaster that everyone pays for.
There’s an obvious logical inconsistency that having seats in the legislature is necessary to participate in the leaders debate, because parties won’t get seats unless they have every opportunity to try to win support. What happens if the Liberals win all 27 seats, then the Conservatives won’t be allowed in the leaders debate in four years?? If the fact the Conservatives have had MLA’s is then used, why not let the NDP in now, it’s had representation in the House??
I know the decision to keep Elizabeth May out of the Federal Leaders Debate didn’t prevent her from being elected, and probably gave Jack Layton more face time, and with Ignatieff performing so badly, gave the NDP a boost, etc., etc. I think the political dynamics are a little different on PEI. Many, many people depend on the government for weeks work and EI to get them through the winter, and to step out from supporting the two main parties (which are ideologically virtually identical) takes some courage. The CBC is now sending a message that thinking/voting outside the box is a waste of time. These are many of the same people who have rallied and organized to keep Compass on the air, and maintain funding for the CBC. This isn’t a good way to maintain that critical sense of ownership of the CBC that so many have had.
I understand it’s hard to change a decision like this, that management will worry it would show journalistic and organizational weakness, that the CBC can be pushed around. I still think the long term damage to important democratic principles, and to the CBC is too high not to reconsider.