Opinion by Ray D’Cruz
Tomorrow, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott face off in a “health debate” at the National Press Club.
It is being billed as a debate, but it won’t be. Given the setting, it will be a question and answer session, with the Gallery’s finest pausing briefly between sips of wine to ask a few questions. The two leaders will take it in turn to respond. There will be a few heated exchanges and one-liners that might catch the nightly news – but not a real debate.
This “debate” comes in an election year – where there will be at least one election debate during the campaign.
There are no electoral rules to demand a debate, but there’s been an election debate for every federal election since 1984.
That will make the 2010 debate the tenth debate.
If it’s like its nine predecessors, there’ll be one debate; major party leaders only and media questioning (no direct questioning by candidates or public questioning)?
Hopefully this debate will be different.
Here are three changes Election Debates would like to see to make Australian election debates more worthwhile:
1. Independence & integrity
An independent debates commission should be established to design, organise and manage debates.
During the last election, Kevin Rudd (as opposition leader) promised an independent debates commission, similar to the one that convenes US presidential and vice presidential debates.
Provided it is not stacked with political hacks, this would be a further step toward good governance.
2. More debates
One debate is plainly not enough.
Most Australian debates are dominated by the economy.
Next cab off the rank are the issues du jour (in 2001, it was border security, in 2004 it was interest rates).
Education and health usually get about 5-7 minutes each and then all other issues across a mass of portfolios are squashed into the remaining few minutes – so tomorrow’s Q&A session is at least welcome in that regard.
One debate is simply not enough for viewers who want to see a broad range of issues debated and who want their arguments to be more than mere assertions.
It is time for two or three debates. They could be themed, as with the US presidential debates, to ensure a broad coverage of issues. The inaugural three UK election debates will also be themed.
Multiple debates would also avoid the vexing issue of whether it is better to have the debate earlier or later in the campaign.
Earlier means that more viewers are undecided, however most parties have not released all their policies, compromising the debate.
Later means that all the policies are out there, but more viewers have already made up their mind.
Multiple debates means debates can be dispersed through the campaign evenly.
3. Direct questioning, but not by media
Changes can be made to improve the quality and excitement of debates and viewer engagement.
Direct questioning between candidates means direct confrontation.
Public questioning either through YouTube uploads (following the NZ lead) or a Town Hall debate (following the US lead) or preferably both should also be allowed.
There is no reason for the media to be asking questions during the debate. As you will in tomorrow’s debate, various media representatives will simply push the editorial line of their papers, or will simply try to trip up one of the leaders for the sake of some news time and so the word “gaffe” can be repeated ad nauseum.
The moderator (who may well be drawn from the media corp) should focus on running the debate: ensuring candidates have equal time, ensuring speakers back up assertions and ensuring questions are answered and not avoided.
There are many more changes which we’ll present in coming months, all of which have the underlying aim of improving voter knowledge through better coverage of a broader range of issues and improving engagement through better designed debates.