Opinion by Ray D’Cruz
The Liberal Party of Australia has called on the Australian Labor Party to participate in three televised leaders’ debates in the upcoming election.
The call highlights, yet again, the need for a genuinely independent debates commission to decide how many debates, who debates and how the debate is conducted. An independent debates commission was a Labor pledge at the last election.
Not a debates commission like the US one, stacked with political operatives from the two major parties. Not a debates commission run entirely by the media either.
Australia needs an independent commission, comprised of media representatives and independent members with relevant expertise who can take into account party concerns but will not be beholden to them.
While the letter from Federal Director Brian Loughnane notes that the Labor Opposition requested three debates during the 2007 election, it does not note that the Liberal Government rejected the request.
Oppositions want more debates because they raise the profile of the Leader and elevate the Leader to the same level of the Prime Minister. Governments don’t want debates for the same reason.
The UK Government relented to Opposition demands for debates in 2010 (having never held them) because incumbent Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s political fortunes were so sick.
Even the gifted orator Tony Blair who surely had little to fear from debates didn’t agree to hold them.
That’s also why Gerald Ford allowed debates in the US 1976 election.
The problem with all of this is that the decisions are left in the hands of party leaders and operatives – and to a lesser extent the media that will televise the debates.
The other problem is that more challenging issues such as whether minor parties should participate are not dealt with in the letter.
Neither Labor not the Liberals want the Greens in the debate. And they will be especially resolute on this issue after watching Liberal-Democrat Nick Clegg in recent the UK debates.
The letter suggests creating alternate formats for the three debates which is a good idea. Though once again the details of those formats would (if three debates eventuated) by decided by the parties.
Would the debates be themed?
How long would speakers have to respond to questions?
Would candidates be allowed to question each other?
Under the current arrangements, all of these issues will be resolved politically. That’s not good enough.