Wednesday, March 30, 2011

“Spare your breath to cool your porridge.”

Way back in 1992 I participated in negotiations with the Broadcasting Arbitrator (who?) as the Liberal Party’s representative to statutory “negotiations” on the divvying up of broadcast minutes for a future election.  These meetings in the past had been completely perfunctory, but this time, there was a twist.  Well several actually.  We had a new arbitrator, number one. Number two, we had a(nother) new political party flexing its (national) muscles: Refooooorm!  And, number three, these were the first negotiations conducted since the multi-million-multi-year Lortie Commission on Electoral Reform (sic) and Party Financing had delivered a four volume report upon which the government had yet to act (and frankly never did).
Here’s what was interesting about these negotiations (aside from being scrummed for the very first time).  No one really knew this, or rather I should say few were cognizant of this, but at the time the Canada Elections Act, which barely recognized and contained no effective definition of a political party, nonetheless contained references to a formula upon which advertising minutes would be divided amongst the various parties. 
 Basically (I’m doing my best to simplify, so no one jump down my throat for the generalities) the Act recognized that broadcasting (television and radio) were the primary media upon which political parties could get out a message fairly universally to all citizens, but also that these were expensive mechanisms and so an element of fairness should be inserted into the electoral process to ensure that those who had the money couldn’t simply over-buy the airwaves (sound familiar?). 
In other words, to provide a bit of a level playing field.  Keep in mind that while we had quite a number of political parties back then (around 12 if memory serves me), there were only three (ok! I’m leaving out Creditistes) that had ever participated in crafting and amending the Act and its provisions and also which had ever formally participated in these negotiations. So they were really only interested in the playing field amongst themselves.
Soooo, the Act said that the arbitrator needed to meet with the parties to divvy up at total of 390 minutes (6.5 hours) of paid advertising time. “Free time” advertising would be allocated based on the “agreement” on paid time.  In place was a statutory formula for the divvying up of these minutes and if the parties couldn’t agree, the Arbitrator would decide. In keeping with the above-mentioned, the Arbitrator had never had to well, arbitrate; everyone (the big three) always agreed on the formula’s outcome. No Question Asked.
The formula, bless its little soul, used for the allocation of paid time was based largely on the application of factors that gave equal weight to the percentage of seats in the House of Commons and the percentage of the popular vote obtained by each of the registered parties in the previous general election, and half-weight to the number of candidates endorsed by each of the registered parties as a proportion of all candidates so endorsed. So, if that lost you – read it again – you will note it is based on previous performance – including, but not exclusive to the number of or even having a seat in the House of Commons. In short, it was was based on some principles.
Sooo, I, the little Opposition party person arrive at the usually sleepy meeting of party reps and who’s there, but The Media, yeah, THE MEDIA, and the REFORM Party – those upstarts – they joined our private little meeting, AND THEY CALLED THE MEDIA!!! After we all calmed down and the Arbitrator explained everything we got down to business.  But a lot of the business wasn’t what everyone expected.  We chatted a lot about public opinion and not a lot about democracy or equality of opportunity in the democratic process, but, I digress – or do I?
The Reform Party rep – actually a good man and a good political friend to this day, began by challenging, as had his party in court, the application of the provisions, which, without doing the math, one could see would diminish their relative weight, simply because of the paucity of seats they held in the House, and the number of seats they had run candidates in, even though they had performed relatively well on popular vote in the ’88 election.  At one point he mused that because his party was at 18% in public opinion polls; his party should be allocated 18% of the advertising minutes.  Being in opposition at the time and really, really badly in opposition to boot, I jokingly shot back that we, the Liberal Party, should then get 35% of the time because that’s where we stood at that very minute in the polls (even though we were little munchkins in terms of our relative weight in the house). 
The Tories (real Wheatbix Tories they were in those days too) really didn’t know what to make of all of this.  Their performance in the last election meant that they were entitled to well over 50% of the available prime time minutes, but everyone and I mean everyone (cause remember, my party had been in a majority situation before) knew that even though it was impossible without busting the expenditure limit several times over to purchase prime time advertising to a limit on each station in the country, you agreed to the allocation in order to hoard minutes so no one else could use them.
Soo, the little opposition person with nothing to lose and a democratic bent fomented from the Lortie hearings just ended, offered that piddling as they were, the Liberal Party would be prepared to “donate” some of its minutes to the emerging parties, because it would be good for the public debate, on the basis of the principles of the statutory formula (combination weight of % seat in the House, % of popular vote and proportion of candidates run).
The Arbitrator (with some edification by the courts admittedly) agreed that the allocation formula had a discriminatory effect which tended to favour the existing parties at the expense of new or emerging parties. He concluded that the statutory factors as applied to allocation “unduly fettered the ability of emerging parties to purchase enough time to make a meaningful case to the Canadian public”. So, two thirds of the time was allocated using the statutory factors and the remaining one third was allocated equally among all the registered parties. The result of this, as was put at the time a “hybrid” approach, was to significantly increase the time allotted to smaller parties, while continuing the predominant weight given to previous performance of “successful” parties. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a great Canadian compromise.
So fast forward to today’s debates about “the Debate”. It’s a debate that encompasses several similar parameters.  It discusses legitimacy for inclusion as witnessed or contemplated through previous performance and public expectations or increasingly importantly sentiment.  Some, but not all of these principles are being discussed. If you really think about they are challenging our tenets and precepts.  
We used to do that behind closed doors and without formal change. But when the public is involved it is often hidden too.  That’s called convention. But it is really about vested interest. In Canada, even though we’ve been given a lot of opportunity, it’s rarely called public intervention or public legislation.  For some reason, we prefer to let convention – for have no mistake, that is what Elizabeth May, when she speaks of opportunity, or Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff, when they yearn for one-on-ones are talking about.
For sure. Let’s have a discussion in this election about who should be included in a debate. But could we please have the bigger discussion about why? And what’s fair? And what’s in the public’s interest? And a better definition of a national party? And how we should codify it? And most important of all, on what bases?
Every election, we seem to discuss what is in the perceived interest of the various parties, because we think that is what ultimately is in our own interests.  And then we hear that so rarely are our elections about something. Or something real.  When might we have a debate – in an election - about how we want to be and how we should be represented? In an election that people are already calling a Senfeld Election – an election about nothing, why don’t we turn it into an election about something that counts?

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