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

Debating the debates commission: the risk of bipartisanship

Opinion by Ray D’Cruz

Labor and the independents have agreed, in writing, to form a debates commission. The details of the debates commission are yet to be set out.

Hopefully this will mean the end of debates about debates – and the tedious dare and counter dare from leaders who tack like yachts looking for the next gust of political momentum.

While a debates commission looks likely, the challenge will be to ensure that it is both independent and effective.

One of the main risks is that Labor and Liberal will politicise a debates commission by stacking it with apparatchiks.

No Debate by George Farah

This has been the case in the United States with the Commission for Presidential Debates (CPD), a group charged with responsibility for organising and making major decisions in relation to presidential and vice presidential debates.

In his book No Debate, George Farah says that the CPD fails in its aim to be non-partisan. Past and present CPD board members are a who’s who of the political establishment: former Republican and Democrat national committee chairs, counsel and strategists to the two major parties and former Republican and Democrat congressman, senators and governors. It is bipartisan.

The CPD was created by agreement between Republicans and Democrats. Farah argues that control of the CPD by Republicans and Democrats has allowed both major parties to control the format of debates (so as to exclude challenging formats) and invitations to participate (so as to exclude candidates from outside the major parties).

If both Labor and Liberal collude on the formation of a debates commission, we may simply see a debates commission acting as an extension of both party secretariats, operating under a veil of independence.

Given that the role of election debates is to inform and engage voters, we are entitled to an independent debates commission, just as we expect an independent Australian Electoral Commission.

Once formed a debates commission would have to address a range of issues. How many debates? Will debates be themed? Who will participate? Who will ask the questions? What role will the media have? How will the public be engaged? How will technology be used? Where will they be held? How will they be broadcast?

The answers to these questions will come from a careful examination of our existing approach to debates and review of how other countries approach televised leaders’ debates.

The 2010 Australian debate was our tenth election debate. Our import of the US presidential debate style has led to a stilted and formal style of debates that is very un-Australian and certainly not in keeping with the robust questioning and debate of the Westminster system. Add to this incongruous import the influence of media advisors and spin doctors and the result is a stage-managed event that does not resemble a real debate. Our debates just joint media conferences.

The Australian style of debate is more direct, engaging and less formal. A leaders’ debate in this country that does not allow direct questioning by one speaker of another and proper time for rebuttal will not satisfy audiences. Some of the ministerial debates held during the election at the National Press Club we more debate-like and were a reminder that better debates are possible and worthwhile.

The Rooty Hill and Brisbane forums demonstrated that the public should be allowed to ask questions. Their questions were clear, direct and in some cases memorable. There is no case for excluding the public from questioning, though perhaps questions could be balanced with media questioning to balance local and national perspectives.

Looking beyond Australia, we can see debate formats that work well. The 2008 New Zealand Leaders’ Debate was extremely effective at engaging the public though YouTube, where voters submitted questions. The 2010 UK Leaders’ Debates saw a more dynamic interpretation of US presidential debates, with far more speaker interaction than we get to see.

Now seems like the worst time to raise the issue of election debates. But it is precisely because there is so little heat in this issue right now that the ground rules for a new approach should be laid.

A future Australian debates commission would have many interesting questions to address. However, to ensure that such a commission is not nobbled from the start, its independence must be safeguarded.

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