With the controversy surrounding the broadcaster's consortium decision to not welcome Elizabeth May into this election's debates, I thought I'd take a look at the possible criteria that governs how and why this decision was made.
Before anyone jumps to conclusion about the consortium's decision, remember that they didn't take this lightly. You may believe they're simply undemocratic bullies, but the fact is that they had to make a choice about her viability as a participant. Is it worth spending more money on airtime and format to accommodate the fifth party's leader, who doesn't hold a seat in the House of Commons, let alone in any province or territory of the country? Is it fair to the other four parties leaders, all of whom have large constituencies and well over a million people who vote for their parties, to squeeze their time and ability to speak during these debates? It's not a decision that can be made on the turn of a dime - it has to be thought through.
So what is the criteria for a presence at the debates? No one is quite sure, as the consortium keeps them a bit of a secret, but from what you can glean off of past decisions, it falls into about three broad categories: popular support, presence in the House, and viability of the candidates.
In general, the first two flow into the third criteria, as in order to have viability, you must have popular support, and if you already have a presence in the House, you already have some level of viability. Together, the stand idea is that if you have support and presence, you're viable, and therefore you have a place at the debates - but as we'll see, there's a certain amount of mitigating circumstances that complicates the Green Party's chances to be in the debate.
First, let's look at the criteria of popular support. The general idea here is that if your party is consistently polling above 5% in recognized polls, you have enough popular support to make a case. The Green Party clearly fits this profile, as only since the beginning of this election season they've polled at about 7-8% popular support. That's on top of the fact that in 2008 they won 6.8% of the popular vote, just under 1,000,000 in total.
However, just because they get the vote across Canada, doesn't necessarily mean they should get into the debates. While being the choice of a million voters is a big deal, the fact is, no candidate of the Green Party came within 10% of winning a seat, not even their leader. This throws into serious doubt whether the Greens actually are winning enough popular support to warrant being allowed into the debates, when in the context of our riding-by-riding system, whereby we elect singular representatives. The fact is, their inability to elect a representative to a seat despite their popular support is a mark against them - after all, if a leader is to be allowed into debates concerning the leadership of a country, why would a party with broad support but not enough support to win a seat be allowed into those debates? They cannot lead the country if they themselves cannot elect members to the House.
The question has been posed in a similar fashion in Australia, where at various times they've had to struggle with three different parties that had good popular support, almost near 5% or over it. This struggle has been huge specifically for the Australian Green Party, which has gained more popular support than our Greens over the years, but until the 2010 elections, was unable to elect a representative to the Australian House (though they did manage to get into the Senate).
The idea was there that even though the Greens had a huge amount of popular support, they simply didn't have enough strength in districts, thus limiting their actual impact. The fact is, there is a big difference between support and representation; if you're unable to actually reach a level whereby you can represent a riding, despite the support you may receive, it's not really a case for your leader to be let into the debates. After all, the goal is to showcase the positions of party leaders that a) can be PM, or b) have enough weight in popular support and presence in the House to be given the chance to hold some power. The Greens, here in Canada and Australia up until 2010, have had to struggle with the fact that they fit neither criteria, despite their levels of support.
Another example is in the United Kingdom, where parties with low popular support like the Scottish Nationals and Plaid Cymru, but do hold several seats, are excluded from the debates despite holding seats. But the fact is, neither party, which runs candidates solely in Scotland or Wales, will ever come close to having enough seats to really affect the outcome of an election, let alone lead the country. This is a similar situation with our Bloc, though the Bloc hold quite a lot more power in the House of Commons in Canada than the Celtic nationalists in the UK even can. And there's enough questions about why the Bloc is allowed in the debates to make us wonder anyways.
Another fact that comes out of that example is the question of what constituency is being represented, exactly. As in the UK, where nationalists are represented in Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, we in Canada have had several large regional blocs show up, least of them being the Bloc Quebecois, and the various Western and Quebec regionalists we've seen in times past. One of the arguments goes that in the UK, debates held in Scotland or Wales should feature the nationalist parties; and so goes the same in Canada, where many suggest the Bloc be featured in French language debates, but not English language debates (as was suggested for the Reform Party before, in reverse). Even if this were to become reality, and this reform of the criteria took place, the Greens do not represent any regional constituency. They're an issues-based party, not nationalist. Meanwhile the Bloc has a legitimate claim to represent a large nationalist population, even if their popular support in some polls is similar to the Green Party. So, the Greens lose out on that front as well.
So, there you have it, in terms of popular support: the Greens are the choice of nearly 7% of the population, but are not viable in any ridings. This means that even though they have the support, they don't have enough to actually make an impact in the House of Commons in any major way; and unlike the Bloc, they can't claim to represent any regionalist or nationalist support either. They are a legitimate party, to be sure, but they have not shown themselves to be legitimate representatives as of yet; the time may come, but until then, no one can claim otherwise. This ties in with the second criteria, presence in the House, which I'll cover later.