Opinion by Ray D’Cruz
The Liberal Party has challenged the Labor Party to three election debates between Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott in the upcoming Australian election.
The Labor Party should agree to the proposal.
The prevailing view of televised leaders’ debates is that they favour the Opposition Leader because they put the alternative Prime Minister on an equal footing with the Prime Minister.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair repeatedly refused requests to debate, despite his considerable communication skills. Debates had never been part of the UK election tradition and he was not about to change that.
So, by extension, why should Labor agree to three debates, when the convention since 1983 has been for one televised leaders’ debate?
1. Gillard needs the profile
The first reason concerns the Prime Minister’s profile. Ms Gillard has been in the job just three weeks. While she has been Deputy Prime Minister, much of her work (particularly her Employment and Workplace Relations work) has flown under the radar. These debates are a way for her to emerge from the shadow of Kevin Rudd; to sound Prime Ministerial.
Mr Abbott hasn’t been in the Opposition Leader’s role for that long either. But he is well known from the Howard Government days and these debates will not boost his profile inordinately.
The prevailing view can be changed in certain situations. History now shows that the UK got its first election debates in 2010, when Prime Minister Gordon Brown rolled the dice. His premiership was in trouble; he thought he had nothing to lose – and he was right!
Ms Gillard’s situation is different again: she needs the profile, she needs the opportunity to sound Prime Ministerial.
2. Abbott might trip up
During the 2007 election in his capacity as Minister for Health he swore in a health debate against then Opposition Health Spokesperson Nicola Roxon at the National Press Club.
As Leader of the Opposition Mr Abbott struggled in the Health Debate earlier this year against Prime Minister Rudd.
He was seen as negative and without a clear position on the proposed health reforms. His negativity did not score well with the worm, that regrettable electronic adjudicator of audience sentiment that too many journalists rely on for a verdict.
This was embarrassing since he was the one who challenged the Prime Minister to debate, much in the same way he is now challenging Ms Gillard to three debates.
More recently we saw an extraordinary series of comments by Mr Abbott on the 7.30 Report with Kerry O’Brien:
TONY ABBOTT: Well, again Kerry, I know politicians are gonna be judged on everything they say, but sometimes, in the heat of discussion, you go a little bit further than you would if it was an absolutely calm, considered, prepared, scripted remark, which is one of the reasons why the statements that need to be taken absolutely as gospel truth is those carefully prepared scripted remarks.
KERRY O’BRIEN: So every time you make a statement, we have to ask you whether it’s carefully prepared and scripted or whether it’s just something on the fly? No, seriously; this is a very serious question.
TONY ABBOTT: But all of us, Kerry, all of us when we’re in the heat of verbal combat, so to speak, will sometimes say things that go a little bit further.
Election debates can constitute heated verbal combat. Labor should welcome the chance to hold three debates.
3. As the incumbent Government, Labor has a more complex message
Ultimately, being negative in debates is easy. Mr Abbott will not be short on one-liners about backflips on the Emissions Trading Scheme or the Resources Tax or blunders such as the home insulation program.
He will also target the Government’s soft stance on asylum seekers. He can deploy rhetoric very effectively here, because it’s an emotive issue that people already have strong views about. Therefore, he doesn’t actually need to argue, he just needs to capture public sentiment and the viewers confirmatory bias will see him well received.
Again, if there is a perception (right or wrong) that the Liberal Party is the low-taxing, low-spending, low-interest rate party, the Liberal Party will be able to activate confirmatory bias through rhetoric. Argumentation may not be required.
This has nothing to do with the policies of individual parties. It is a circumstantial observation.
Labor did exactly the same thing in the 2007 election debate, with Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd focussing in on voter discontent with rising petrol, grocery and house prices. It was easy fodder because it tapped public sentiment. His proposals were less convincing, but it didn’t seem to matter.
As the Goverment, Labor has a more challenging message: it has to defend its policies, announce further policies and attack the opposition (both as an Opposition as well as when they were in Government).
While Mr Abbott can talk about backflips, Ms Gillard will need to explain policy changes, providing clear rationales and examples where possible (more traditional debating).
Debating actually takes time. Issues can take vital minutes to cover – to explain, to argue, to rebut and to use evidence (in contrast to one-liners which take seconds and can be repeated consistently).
I simply don’t think that one debate will afford Labor enough time to deal with the following issues: economic management and policy (including the resources tax); border security, immigration and population policy; workplace relations; climate change and the environment; education; health; foreign affairs (including the war in Afghanistan); indigenous policy, housing etc.
Labor would be wise to agree to three debates, perhaps themed economic, social and a mixed debate (perhaps a Town Hall style debate where members of the public can ask a range of questions).
Time will tell how many debates we have in the 2010 election. But yet again, one thing is clear: these decisions should not be made by federal party secretariats. They should be made by a genuinely independent debates commission.