Greens threaten to go to court if excluded from TV debates

The Green party said Wednesday it's ready to go to court if a consortium of television networks doesn't include party leader Elizabeth May in leaders' debates which will air nationally in advance of the expected October federal vote.

Party has 'legal right' to be included, it argues

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, right, smiles as she introduces Blair Wilson as the first Green Party MP during a news conference in Ottawa on Saturday. ((Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press))
The Green party said Wednesday it's ready to go to court if a consortium of television networks doesn't include party leader Elizabeth May in leaders' debates which will air nationally in advance of the expected October federal election.

The party is giving the consortium "the chance to do the right thing" by including the Greens in the debate, former party leader Jim Harris said at a news conference Wednesday.

"For the sake of democracy, she has to be included," he said. "Electors have a right to know where the Green party stands."

If their demand is rejected, the Greens will lodge a complaint with Canada's broadcasting regulator, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, he said. If that fails, the Greens will ask for a judicial review as a last resort.

Harris's remarks come as the federal Conservatives are seeking to block May from the debates, citing a deal struck by May and Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion where they agreed not to run candidates against each other in their respective ridings.

"You can't have one leader onstage that has already endorsed the candidacy of another and signed an electoral co-operation agreement," Harper spokesman Dimitri Soudas said.

"When it comes to the debate, they can have May or they can have Dion," he said. "But they can't have both."

It has been a normal practice in the past for political parties to occasionally not run candidates against rival parties' leaders.

Greens must meet criteria

Traditionally, the consortium of Canada's largest English and French television networks — CBC/Radio-Canada, CTV, Global Television and TVA — has decided which party leaders would participate in the debates.

In the December 2005 debates that preceded the 2006 election, Harris — then leader of the Green party — was excluded because his party had no seats in the House of Commons.

Representation in the House of Commons is an "indisputable" criterion for inclusion in the national debate, said the CBC ombudsman in a 2006 report responding to Green party complaints.

The decision to include a party in the debates also must take into account the party's performance at the polls and its ability to field candidates across all 308 Canadian ridings, said the report.

May told the CBC's Don Newman in an interview Tuesday that her party has a "legal right" to be included in the debate after former Independent MP Blair Wilson joined the party last week.

When questioned about the legitimacy of Wilson's seat as a Green, given he was elected as a Liberal, May countered that the Bloc Québécois was included in the national debates prior to 1993 federal election, despite none of the candidates being elected as Bloc members.

Then party leader Lucien Bouchard and other Quebec Tory members deserted the Conservatives to form the Bloc. Current Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe was also voted into the Commons as an independent, May said.

"Let's be clear that I still see there to be no objection to our inclusion of debates under any of the criteria the consortium previously outlined," May said.

"We know that 77 per cent of Canadians in two different polls support my participation in the debates."

The Greens garnered 4.5 per cent of the vote in the 2006 federal election while a national poll released Monday by The Globe and Mail-CTV News shows the Greens polling at nine per cent.

The Bloc Québécois, which is represented in the debates, polled at eight per cent.

May said she is in talks with the consortium over her inclusion in the debates, but could not comment further.

With files from the Canadian Press