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

Debacle demonstrates need for debates commission

Opinion by Ray D’Cruz

Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott shake hands after the debate. Courtesy: ABC

The dare and counter-dare for more Australian election debates now heads into its fifth, excruciating week. As of tonight, another debate might happen, but it’s in the hands of party operatives. What a reassuring thought.

If you want conclusive proof that election debates should be taken out of the hands of political operatives and their brazen self-interest, consider the history of this debacle:

  • 15 July 2010: With the election called, the Opposition calls for three debates. The Government commits to one, failing to deviate from past election offerings. The Government is ahead in the polls and conventional wisdom is that debates can only threaten front-runners.
  • 25 July: The debate takes place. At the close of the debate, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott asks for two more debates. Prime Minister Ms Gillard does not agree.
  • 3 August: The Government changes its position, requesting a themed debate on the economy. It’s been a bad few campaign weeks for the Government, and Ms Gillard is looking to another debate to arrest momentum. At the very least, she is using the debate to focus public discourse on the economy. The Opposition Leader changes his mind too, saying that there is no time for another debate.
  • 11 August: Both leaders somehow manage to turn up to a place called Rooty Hill for a Q&A session with voters from a bell-weather electorate. Some people call it a debate but it is clearly not: the speakers are on stage sequentially; there is no interaction.
  • 15 August: Ms Gillard once again calls for a televised leaders’ debate, on the economy. Clouding the issue, Mr Abbott calls for another Rooty Hill-style forum, this time in Brisbane.
  • 16 August: The Opposition agrees to a debate on the economy on condition that a forum in Brisbane is held. The Opposition says 30-minutes will be enough time for the debate. The Government demands one hour to do justice to the subject and suggests combining the debate and forum.
  • 17 August: Both sides continue to argue about the timing, duration and location of the debate/forum and whatever else it’s possible to argue about without actually having a debate.

What a joke! What does it say about Australia, in contrast to the US, UK, Canada and NZ, when we can’t sort these things out?

As Annabel Crabb noted, what will happen if they actually agree? We’ll lose the most compelling debate of the election: whether to have a debate.

Let’s remind ourselves that debates are there to inform voters and engage people in the political process. In return, leaders gain extraordinary public access and the two major parties gain free media that the minor parties can only dream about. The major parties are so cynical that they think this kind of access comes without any responsibility.

Both sides have changed their mind on holding debates based on the ebb and flow of their political standing.

Both sides pretend to be up for a debate while their advisors negotiate the life out of these exchanges.

The answer to this debacle is an independent debates commission. Independent, by the way, means constituted by people who are not members (and therefore representatives) of political parties. The US Commission for Presidential Debates, heaped with political appointees and corporate sponsorship is not a model to be followed.

Between elections, when political fortunes are not on a knife-edge and when words don’t matter as much, an independent group can liaise with political parties and broadcasters – without being beholden to them – to develop a plan setting out the number, place, format and subject of debates, the number and identity of participants and of course, the fate of the worm.

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