2010 Australian Election, Ray D'Cruz, View opinion pieces

Where’s the chicken? Playing politics with election debates

Opinion by Ray D’Cruz

Prime Minister Julia Gillard is daring Opposition Leader Tony Abbott to another debate – a themed debate on the economy. The one and only debate was 10 days ago.

Yet the boldness of her dare is undermined by her rejection during the last debate of Mr Abbott’s proposal for a further two debates.

Ms Gillard’s latest proposal is without doubt a reflection of her sliding approval ratings. The Prime Minister is either counting on another debate to arrest momentum or simply making an ambit claim for an economic debate, sensing that Mr Abbott’s refusal or hesitation may damage his economic credibility.

It’s not the first time election debates have been used for political stunts.

Chicken George during the 1992 US presidential elections

In 1992, Chicken George followed US President George Bush on the campaign trail, demanding Bush debate Governor Bill Clinton. Mr Bush made the mistake of engaging with Chicken George. (1)

This may have been a throw back to 1968, when Democratic challenger Hubert Humphrey called President Richard Nixon “Sir Richard-the-Chicken-Hearted” for his refusal to debate. (2) Nixon may have resisted following his poor showing in the 1960 presidential debates against John F. Kennedy, the first televised leaders’ debates.

Continuing the poultry theme, in 1997, incumbent UK Prime Minister John Major called Opposition Leader Tony Blair a chicken for not debating. To press the point the Conservative Party employed someone to wear a chicken suit and follow Mr Blair. Mr Blair was leading in the polls and did not want to risk that lead.

In 2001, Prime Minister Blair again refused to debate, and was labelled a chicken by Opposition Leader William Hague. Again, Mr Blair did not want to risk his standing, despite his considerable oratory skills.

In all these cases, both the debate petitioner and the resisting leader had political reasons for their position.

There are a few exceptions – such as Prime Minister Bob Hawke agreeing to debate in 1984 to honour a commitment he made while in Opposition and UK Opposition Leader David Cameron agreeing to 2010 leaders’ debates despite being a long way ahead in the opinion polls and having little to gain.

But Ms Gillard’s dare for another debate falls squarely into line with election debate stunts through the ages – minus the chicken. The Government is playing politics with election debates.

Ms Gillard witnessed only a few months ago how a debate can shift momentum. Then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd got an immediate lift from his strong performance in a themed Health debate against Mr Abbott. She may be counting on another themed debate gifting her a similar but more enduring boost.

The Opposition has not been a model of consistency on debates either. During the 2007 election, then opposition leader Kevin Rudd requested three debates. Prime Minister John Howard permitted just one. Now, as Opposition, they are committed to three debates. Will it remain that way if Tony Abbott becomes Prime Minister?

Treating debates as political playthings is nothing new. So it’s important to remember that election debates are there to inform voters and engage people in the political process. Furthermore, televised leaders’ debates amount to millions of dollars of free advertising.

A decision on a second debate in the 2010 Australian election should ultimately be based on the public interest. (On that point, Paul Kelly says in today’s Australian that it is in the public interest to hold a second debate).

The only way to resolve these types of impasses and avoid these stunts is to have a genuinely independent debates commission, determine how many debates, in what format and with whom. It can liaise with parties and the media without being beholden to them. It can help debates fulfil their true democratic potential.

If it is impossible for both major parties to conceive an independent commission without stacking it with political operatives, as has happened in the US with the Commission for Presidential Debates, then perhaps responsibility for establishing the group could be handed to the Australian Electoral Commission.

Either way, it’s time to let the public interest decide how many debates, where and when they’re conducted and in what format.

Read Ray’s profile

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(1) Alan Schroder, Presidential Debates – Fifty Years of High-Risk TV (2nd ed), Columbia University Press, New York, 2008, p.22

(2) George Farah, No Debate – How the Republican and Democratic Parties Secretly Control the Presidential Debates, Seven Stories Press, New York, 2004, p. 5.

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