2016 AU Election

Balavijendran: Shorten wins Leaders’ Debate

Judge: Logan Balavijendran

Winner: Shorten

Scores: Shorten 79 | Turnbull 78

The debate was poor. At this stage of the campaign both candidates are more concerned about mistakes than wins – so safe and disciplined was the strategy on both sides. Shorten took a few more risks – probably because he has to – and it paid off. He had a larger impact, was less forgettable and seemed to have more conviction.

The key clash was around the economy and ability to govern, but it was more rubbing and grating than really frontal clashing. One side ran trickle down theory and the other had a laundry list of examples without any theory. The questions and format didn’t help – limited question set, and little space for speakers to interact with each other – but there was enough space for the speakers to really express themselves, if they so choose to.

I’d give it to Shorten but only just, here’s why.

The economy (ish)

There were a few areas of clash but the greatest amount of consistent engagement was around the economy (or taxation, which often was as deep as it got). It featured in responses to questions on corporate tax, superannuation, political mandates and was all of their closing statements. Turnbull’s approach was simple – trickle down economics. Lower corporate taxes encourage growth, build small companies, encourage employment. He used his business background to build credibility to back his argument.

Shorten came back strongly to attack the tax cuts, painting them as gifts for big companies. He attacked the coalition for flip flopping on the GST and provided a diverse list of examples of failing services. It was an impressive attack and harmed Turnbull’s credibility – the Prime Minister struggled to respond to every detail and could only offer more Jobs and more Growth. Shorten however did not provide a positive policy on growth himself – he effectively attacked trickle-down economics, but could not offer an alternative theory.

When Shorten did make an attempt at a theory on the economy, he did late – at the end of the debate, in his closing statement, when he argued strong economies are equitable ones. Turnbull ended strongly that all the services depended on the economic growth, and without strong economic growth, there is no point talking about where to spend. Shorten responded with another long list of examples – but made the point that the economy is complex, and reliant on all these different components – climate change, science, healthcare, education. That economic growth is not possible without fairness. It was a more mature and accurate understanding of the economy, even if poorly explained.

Turnbull’s approach was consistent and effective, and those wanting a simple strong answer will like it. Shorten was scattered and lacked a direct point of approach, but his points were better supported and more logical.

The Others

There were few other clash-points, namely superannuation, asylum seekers, and climate change. Shorten took both superannuation and climate change, painting Turnbull as inconsistent and ineffective. What we will remember from superannuation is that Labour is the part of superannuation and the coalition’s policy could be applied retrospectively (Shorten had a good bite, which Turnbull came back but only opened himself up for more attack – again the opposition leader took control) and on climate change, a long list of things we are failing to do (courtesy of Shorten). Again no clear answers or policies, but Shorten imposed himself much stronger on both points.

On asylum seekers, Turnbull was anxious to take a strong position, and Shorten was anxious to show he agreed with Turnbull. Again Shorten seemed more constructive, and Turnbull more rhetorical and simple – Shorten talked about regional resettlement and Turnbull about people smugglers on social media, who would use compassion as a marketing tool. This was probably the point Turnbull was most aggressive on and edged slightly – though Shorten shot back just as hard.

The style

Both men were restrained, controlled and trying very hard to say just enough to seem Prime Ministerial. The stare into the camera was well rehearsed, the jobs and growth and positive policies firmly wedged into every response. It was a disciplined, if boring, but safe approach.

Turnbull’s strategy was to portray himself a businessman first and politician second, a firm hand steering HMS Australia through turbulent economic waters. Shorten’s approach was to meet him for surety but surpass him for conviction – since he’s not in government, he can sound pissed off, and he did – on about a 100 different things.

Shorten had a few more catch phrases that he used better than Turnbull (“Mr Turnbull wants to spend taxpayer payer, just not on taxpayers”, “I genuinely lead my party, your party genuinely leads you”). These are cheesy, but catchy and definitely better than waffle.


This was not an exciting debate, but at this stage of the campaign, both candidates are more concerned about what they have to lose than points they have to win. Given that, I think Shorten did a better job taking the momentum and staying across the issues. There wasn’t a big focus on a few central policies that would be harder to defend, but instead a push on the incumbent to defend as much as possible. Turnbull’s strategy was also sound – focus on his central jobs and growth plan and hinge everything on that – but without data or logic to show it works, it was empty rhetoric, and insufficient to bat away Shorten’s attacks.

So on the basis on who made stronger logical links and did a better job taking control of the debate, I give the debate to Shorten. Though by the tiniest of margins. If you were an undecided voter, this debate probably didn’t help you decide – but I don’t think either speaker was really trying. Shorten wanted to just a little bit more.


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