STAR: Why fair debates matter in Ontario



This is an op-ed I wrote for the Toronto Star.  Read the original version here.

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As a teenager, I would occasionally become enthralled by televised sports. I wasn’t particularly interested in wrestling matches or hockey playoffs, but my eyes would be glued to the screen for hours as I watched a true blood sport: elections.

I remember watching poll results late into the evening with my father and I recall being particularly fascinated by leadership conventions. It was amazing to me that political control was decided not in a backroom, but live on TV.

During one of those conventions I became so impressed with a particular candidate that I pinned his election sign to my bedroom wall, hanging between posters of Pink Floyd and Def Leppard.

I tend to lean to the left side of the political spectrum but this election sign did not belong to Broadbent, Clinton or Rae. My political hero was Garth Turner, a leadership candidate for the Tories in 1993 – my last year of high school.

It wasn’t Turner’s policy proposals that earned him a place in my bedroom between ‘The Wall’ and ‘Pour Some Sugar on Me’.  I was inspired by his approach and philosophy. Simply put, he had the guts to admit that he couldn’t win the race and he had the sophistication to explain why that didn’t matter.

Standing in front of 3,400 delegates, on live TV, he proposed that a leadership race isn’t just about choosing a leader, but also a time to share ideas. In an environment focused on winners and losers, he boldly said “There’s more to life than winning and it’s called principle and that’s what you stand for.”

He also spoke about risk. “It would have been easier and cheaper for me to sit this race out” he told the crowd. “But my whole life has involved taking risks because that’s the only way that you move forward.” This was inspiring for me as a teenager and the audience was receptive too. The loudest applause came when Turner asked “if avoiding risk was the only principle, who would ever put a crop in the ground or go out and start a small business?”

In a political culture dominated by risk aversion, these were refreshing words. My teenage crush was cemented when Turner finished his speech by firmly saying “damn the odds, damn the risk and damn the armchair critics!”.

By shifting the focus away from winning, Turner made politics seem more accessible and inviting. For the first time, I could imagine myself on that stage.

The television commentators mocked him, making references to Dana Carvey’s Garth character on Wayne’s World, but fortunately a guest panelist disagreed. Liberal Senator Michael Kirby interrupted and said “candidates like Garth contribute significantly. If campaigns only allowed people who were among the top two or three likely to win, you would have a sense of parties being closed. Frankly I have to admire someone for making the effort that he’s done.”

I agree with Kirby and believe the same applies to our general elections. Today’s younger generation has grown up in an open world with hundreds of television stations and millions of websites. More than ever, people expect diversity, choice and access to information.

With this in mind, I’ve been recruiting Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats to endorse a non-partisan statement calling for fair televised debates that include Ontario Green Party leader Mike Schreiner. The list of endorsements is growing each day, including Liberal candidate Sarah Thomson and NDP candidate Jonah Schein. We’ve also seen recent commitments from John Tory and from TVO’s The Agenda to include the Greens in their election coverage.

Some will argue that if Schreiner is invited then the leaders of the other eight small parties should be invited too. Truth is, in 2007 none of those parties received more than 1% of the vote. Meanwhile, 8% of Ontarians voted Green with 19 candidates placing second or third, and local results as high as 33%. The Greens have earned a seat at the table.

If we want to foster a healthy political culture, encourage debate and attract younger voters to the election process, then we should strive to make our televised debates inclusive and fair.

After all, elections aren’t just about winning. They provide a moment when we allow ourselves to be collectively inspired by the exchange of ideas. Garth Turner taught me that eighteen years ago. What are we teaching our younger generation today?

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View the original post here.
With thanks to Hilary Best, for digging up the archival quotes from ’93.

And, just for fun:

5 responses to “STAR: Why fair debates matter in Ontario

  1. Yes, David.

    “Standing in front of 3,400 delegates, on live TV, [Turner, one of the heroes of your youthful inspiration] proposed that a leadership race isn’t just about choosing a leader, but also a time to share ideas. In an environment focused on winners and losers, he boldly said “There’s more to life than winning and it’s called principle and that’s what you stand for.”

    He also spoke about risk. “It would have been easier and cheaper for me to sit this race out” he told the crowd. “But my whole life has involved taking risks because that’s the only way that you move forward.” This was inspiring for me as a teenager and the audience was receptive too. The loudest applause came when Turner asked “if avoiding risk was the only principle, who would ever put a crop in the ground or go out and start a small business?”

    In a political culture dominated by risk aversion, these were refreshing words. My teenage crush was cemented when Turner finished his speech by firmly saying “damn the odds, damn the risk and damn the armchair critics!”

    By shifting the focus away from winning, Turner made politics seem more accessible and inviting. For the first time, I could imagine myself on that stage.

    …If we want to foster a healthy political culture, encourage debate and attract younger voters to the election process, then we should strive to make our televised debates inclusive and fair.

    After all, elections aren’t just about winning. They provide a moment when we allow ourselves to be collectively inspired by the exchange of ideas. Garth Turner taught me that eighteen years ago. What are we teaching our younger generation today?”

    Can you see the inconsistency between this and:

    “Some will argue that if Schreiner is invited then the leaders of the other eight small parties should be invited too. Truth is, in 2007 none of those parties received more than 1% of the vote. Meanwhile, 8% of Ontarians voted Green with 19 candidates placing second or third, and local results as high as 33%. The Greens have earned a seat at the table.”
    ?
    Where, if the ideal is about sharing ideas, encouraging debate, and Turner’s concept of “Principle”, does the fact that somebody deserves public exposure because they or their party ran for office in a previous election come into play except as an exclusionary tool to keep others who do not fit the same description from receiving the same invaluable free mass-publicity time?
    How can you miss this point of fair election practices on the part of the media, especially when you have now elucidated additional value to be gained from it by the electorate?

    Mark State

  2. Which parties do you think should be at the table, Mark?

  3. That’s easy. Political parties running candidates in more than 50% of ridings should have a seat/podium at any debate. If a party is only running two or three candidates–those candidates should have a seat at that riding’s candidates debates but since the rest of us CAN’T vote for the leader, he or she doesn’t much matter.

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