Opinion by Ray D’Cruz
The following principles establish a new approach for Australian debates. They seek to meet the two central aims of election debates: to educate voters so that they may exercise a more informed vote; and to engage the public in the political process.
Principle 1 – There should be a sufficient number of debates to properly address the issues facing Australia.
Three debates will be necessary to ensure vital issues are not superficially dealt with or entirely overlooked. Even when economics dominates our single debate, it may only equate to 20-30 minutes discussion. This is plainly inadequate for an issue voters label most likely to determine their vote. Education and health receive cursory attention and issues such as foreign affairs, trade and indigenous affairs are usually ignored altogether. A sufficient number of debates is starting point for a new approach.
Principle 2 – Debates should be spaced evenly through the campaign so that major policies can be debated.
Usually the single debate takes place early in the campaign. The upside is that a larger proportion of the audience have not determined their vote – so the debate may count. The downside is that the debate takes place before many policies are released – and the debate cannot test them. Given that our election campaigns are usually 4-6 weeks in duration, three debates on the first three Sundays of the campaign will maximise exposure to uncommitted voters and allow policy debate.
Principle 3 – Debates should be themed so that important subjects can be addressed in depth.
Themed debates, such as an economic and finance debate, would allow debates to address topics in depth. This is, of course, the way in which debates are meant to be structured: a topic, neatly framed, that allows both sides to focus on an issue and persuade an audience. Leadership debates have degenerated into a cursory glance at issues of fundamental importance. If three themed debates were held in 2010, we could have held one on the economy, one on social policy (e.g. health, education, indigenous affairs) and one on the environment.
Principle 4 – The format of each debate should allow sufficient time for proper argumentation and rebuttal.
There is a trade-off between the number of questions asked and the time allocated for speaker responses. Too many questions will result in short, scripted comments with no argumentation or evidence. A more generous time allocation for responses and rebuttal will force speakers to address issues in some depth. However, the moderator will need to ensure that the speaker remains relevant and will need to intervene where speaker seeks to convert the argument into some prepared speech.
Principle 5 – The speakers will generally be the leaders most likely to be elected Prime Minister, but not always.
Broad debate themes such as economic and social debates would involve leaders from the two major parties. If the third debate was on climate change and the environment, the leader of the Greens could be invited to participate. Involving a third party in a third debate is proportionate way in which to broaden the participant base. If a third party gains significantly popularity, as with the Liberal-Democrats in the UK, then there may be a strong case for involving their leader in all three debates. But we are not at this point in Australia.
Principle 6 – Questioning should be permitted from media, public and speakers.
Questions should be allowed from media, the public and the participants. Presently, only a few selected members of the Press Gallery ask questions. The Sydney and Brisbane public forums demonstrated that the public can ask excellent questions. (It also proved that partisan members of the public can sneak into the audience with the aim of scoring points – and this needs to be managed better). Direct questioning between speakers would energise the debate. Direct questioning was used sparingly but to great effect in the UK debates. Given our Westminster tradition, we should allow direct questioning in debates too.
Principle 7 – Technology should be used to increase public engagement.
Technology should be embraced in the same way it is in the NZ debates where voters can upload questions to YouTube that are then selected by media. Technology is a dynamic issue and its ongoing capacity to improve education and engagement should be addressed.
Principle 8 – An independent debates commission should ensure that the public interest remains paramount.
All debate issues need to be overseen by an independent debates commission. The commission should consult with parties without being beholden to them. A commission stacked full of party apparatchiks, such as the US Commission for Presidential Debates, will undermine much of the potential that these debates hold. The commission may include members of the media, but again, their involvement should be kept proportionate. If the public interest conflicts with the interests of media and politicians the public interest must prevail.