2010 AU Election, Ray D'Cruz, View by election, View opinion pieces

Debate Club: Australia’s sad attempt at engagement

Opinion by Ray D’Cruz

The National Press Club has confirmed arrangements for this Sunday’s sole leaders’ debate on their website.

It will be a one-hour debate, with a panel of three journalists quizzing both leaders. Only media and political party operatives will be present at the Club.

No details have been provided about the format of the debate, but if past debates are any indication, the panel of journalists will each ask a question, speakers will respond in turn and may get chance at a rejoinder.

In other words, we’ve got a joint presser instead of an election debate. Just another opportunity for journalists who question politicians every day to question them a little bit more.

Head in the sand

We’ve completely ignored some of the more interesting developments in election debates from other parts of the world.

Like a Town Hall style debate like in the US presidential debates, where members of the public ask questions.

Our using YouTube like the NZ leaders’ debate to allow the public to submit questions.

It’s disappointing. It denies participation and engagement. It ignores the momentum and excitement that NZ and the UK were able to gain by involving the public in different ways.

It underlines that this event is being held at a Club, by a Club and for a Club.

The non-debate

The number of debates and timeframe means we will have just a few minutes to discuss serious issues.

Allowing for introductions, conclusions and questions, a one-hour debate probably leaves around 50 minutes for debate.

That means each speaker will have around 25 minutes to speak.

They will probably cover economic management, tax policy, industrial relations, climate change, the environment, education, health, border security, immigration and population.

So that’s a little over one minute to provide substantive arguments and one minute to rebut on an issue of national importance.

That’s the equivalent of 2 x 30-second commercials for a substantive argument in a debate that is meant to inform the public about who to vote for at the election. And we wonder why politicians use slogans, talk in cliches and appeal to existing biases and prejudices instead of properly arguing points.

The moderator may of course dwell on one of two subjects, but that will be at the expense of some of the other issues. Will issues such as indigenous affairs, energy policy, defence, the war in Afghanistan or foreign aid even get mentioned?

A single hope

Within this format, our only hope for a reasonable debate will be if the moderator David Speers lets the speakers question each other from time to time. It might generate something unpredictable, and the rapport between these two speakers might enliven the debate. Within the extreme limitations of this debate format, some direct questioning might be about the only thing that allows this joint presser to become something a bit better.

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