Televised debates between party leaders has been with us for some time now. The fact that they mean little in the broader scheme of things is, apparently, irrelevant. The media must have them. They are fodder for the journos, keen to find weaknesses in the armoury of the principals and capture the ‘gotcha’ moments they can exploit or milk, for all their worth.
The first debate I remember was between Bob Hawke and Andrew Peacock in 1984 and much store was made of the perception that Peacock won. It didn’t translate too much. In the subsequent election, Labor won the popular vote, the two party preferred vote and a majority in the lower house, despite a 1.46% swing to the conservatives. The Australian Democrats held the balance of power in the senate.
This prompted more sophisticated monitoring of future debates with the introduction of “the worm”, a line across the bottom of the screen that went up or down based on audience reaction to individual statements made by each leader.
But, as timed passed, fewer people watch these debates and the worm’s use-by date expired. This year the first debate wasn’t even televised on free-to-air television and the second was limited to the ABC.
When the major commercial channels don’t even bother to pick up the feed these days, it’s a good sign the broader audience has tuned out. It’s safe to say the format, now so tightly designed and managed to limit any major gaffes, has killed the concept.
The leader’s debate held tonight on the ABC vindicated viewers’ decision to turn away in droves. It was little more than an opportunity for each man to repeat “stuff” that we have all heard before. There was no excitement, no charisma, and no sense of conflict.
Turnbull spoke forcefully when he suggested errors in Labor’s economic costings, but Shorten hit back confidently citing equally suspicious numbers published by the Coalition. Neither man scored any advantage here
Both leaders had ousted former leaders which seemed to be a matter of concern for Chris Uhlmann who, as a self professed conservative, looked far too serious. It was a wasted question. I doubt anyone cares or considers this a relevant issue. But the Coalition’s form over the past three years did not help Turnbull. On the issue of trust the points went to Shorten.
Shorten was on safe ground whenever health and education came up. Turnbull tried to appear the more experienced on business matters but it didn’t cut through. Tax cuts for business has proved to be a big negative for the Coalition and Shorten milked it well.
Ironically, the issue of Asylum seekers is where one would expect the Coalition to be on safe ground. But somewhere in the complexity of the matter Turnbull sounded unconvincing. The time taken to process them worked against him.
Shorten delivered a confident response particularly when he mentioned Labor’s 2013 Malaysian plan, rejected by the Coalition. Turnbull tried to regain lost ground but he sounded more and more desperate.
On climate change Turnbull suggested that both parties were running on similar policies. It seemed to be reduced to a question of cost. Shorten disagreed and hit back on Turnbull’s personal record, suggesting he had been forced to promote Tony Abbott’s policies, not his own. Shorten said the prime minister was “Tony Abbott lite” He won this point too.
Turnbull’s final statement was like a pastor’s sermon. It sounded flat and boring. He kept pounding the mantra of a strong economy and the importance of growth, but failed to explain how that growth would materialise. It was the same old rhetoric we’ve heard before.
Shorten’s final statement hit home on the emotional level; his concern for people and the impact government policies have on them, cut through. He assured us Medicare would stay in government hands. His plan for economic growth was more specific. He spoke of the need for jobs, for education, hospitals. He hurt Turnbull when he talked about business tax cuts and superannuation.
Overall, it was a less than exciting debate, far too scripted and stilted. On balance, Shorten was more relaxed and was actually able to smile once or twice. Turnbull, on the other hand, always looked as if he was under pressure.
But, I suspect it was a debate unlikely to change any swinging voter’s perceptions.