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A Debates Commission in name only

Opinion by Ray D’Cruz

The Morrison government has recently announced its intention to form an independent Australian Debates Commission to oversee televised election debates. If you are hoping this might improve the number or quality of debates, don’t get your hopes up.

The Commission is likely to be bound by principles set out by the Government including what constitutes a debate, where the debates should be held and broadcast rules.

According to a report by Paul Karp in The Guardian, the proposal suggests a 10-person Commission, with two appointees from Labor and Liberal parties, an independent commissioner appointed by each party, and four media representatives.

Without having seen the full statement by the Minister, or all 20 principles, the limited information is already informative.

Major party domination

Six of the 10 positions on the Committee are divided between the two major parties. The idea of an Independent Commissioner appointed by a major party is clearly a nonsense.

Some scepticism of the timing of Government’s announcement and the likely composition of the Commission is justified. Could it be that both parties are worried about the rise of minor parties and independents?

Will this approach be carried through to other debates in seats like Wentworth and Melbourne where independents and minor parties pose a credible threat to incumbent major party representatives?

Public wrangling

The Commission is likely to eliminate the usual brawling about the number, format and timing of debates. This unedifying argument is usually more argumentative than the debate itself.

Instead, the wrangling will take place behind closed doors, where both major parties can hammer out an agreement without the usual embarrassment.

This is what happens in the US. There, a supposedly independent commission (in reality, dominated by major party appointees) ensures a highly scripted and stage managed event. No surprises: just how the major parties like it, as we wrote in 2010. If you want to understand how contrived the US system is, read George Farah’s No Debate!

What’s a debate?

As if to prove that the Debates Commission doesn’t care about debates, The Guardian reports that two interviews broadcast on the same night by a single program will be considered a debate. A back to back interview on a current affairs program will qualify or a Q&A session may also qualify.

Let’s be clear: a debate is at least two speakers directly challenging each other. It is designed to challenge each speaker to justify their track record and policies.

We have the potential absurdity of a debates commission that stages events that are not debates. It’s a scenario out of Yes Minister, like the best run hospital in Britain, which didn’t have any patients. You can just see the Commission taking credit for a new era in election debates, featuring no real debate.

There seems to be no commitment to improving the quality of debates. The likelihood is that debates will continue to dance across the surface of a range of issues without delving into any. What are the chances that we’ll have a sustained 30-minute debate on one of the greatest geopolitical issues of the next 50 years: the rise of China, the US response and Australia’s role?

Wither the worm?

One better pieces of news is the likelihood that the so-called worm (a live sentiment tool tracking the audience reaction) will be ditched from live broadcasts. It should be removed from broadcasts. It simply acts as a confirmation bias tool for audiences and substitute for analysis for the laziest journalists.

We know that this Coalition Government has a disinterest in independent commissions. We also know that the last Labor Government, despite promising a debates commission in its pact with three independents, did not follow through.

A better approach

Election Debates laid out principles for better debates in 2010. We haven’t changed our position since then.

The eight principles are:

Principle 1 – There should be a sufficient number of debates to properly address the issues facing Australia.

Principle 2 – Debates should be spaced evenly through the campaign so that major policies can be debated.

Principle 3 – Debates should be themed so that important subjects can be addressed in depth.

Principle 4 – The format of each debate should allow sufficient time for proper argumentation and rebuttal.

Principle 5 – The speakers will generally be the leaders most likely to be elected Prime Minister, but not always.

Principle 6 – Questioning should be permitted from media, public and speakers.

Principle 7 – Technology should be used to increase public engagement.

Principle 8 – An independent debates commission should ensure that the public interest remains paramount.

The role of election debates is to inform voters. There is little prospect that the proposal, as reported to date, will help. There is every chance it will make things worse.

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