The prime minister was right to finally agree to participate in Sky News’ ‘people’s forum’ televised debate, scheduled for this coming Wednesday. It’s good for the media campaign, and voters’ engagement with the issues, and essential for Rudd and the ALP if they are to have any chance of winning on September 7.
Like his unexpectedly weak performance in the first debate, a strong performance on Wednesday could be another game changer, positive for the ALP this time. It could reboot Rudd’s campaign, and put Abbott back on the defensive. Conversely, another failure for Rudd in the live debate arena would mean that the election is indeed over, its outcome certain, as the majority of the media have been suggesting in recent days.The remaining two and a bit weeks of campaigning will then be a formality.
And what might we learn from this people’s forum that we do not already know? First, we will know a bit more about what the ‘people’ really think. The first debate was driven by journalists and excluded ordinary citizens. Nothing wrong with that, as long as there are opportunities for authentic, unscripted encounters between politicians and voters elsewhere in the media schedule.
Assuming that the studio audience is genuinely representative of the electorate, we can expect their questions and comments to reflect the nation’s priorities. We will hear incoherent anger from some, razor sharp critique from others, but above all we will get a sense of what the Australian people - endlessly invoked by the pollies but rarely permitted to ask tough questions of them, live on TV, face to face - consider to be the big issues.
‘We’ ARE the Australian people, of course, and we may already know what we think, and what our friends, work colleagues and associates think of this election. We will have a sense of how the popular mood is developing, by observing and listening to those around us.
But a live debate with an appropriately selected studio audience allows us to better understand how what WE think, individually, fits in with the structure of public opinion nationally. We might be surprised by what we discover about the priorities and views of others outside our own familiar circles.
More important, perhaps, is the format’s capacity to represent in miniature the very essence of democracy. Here are the people, holding power to account, scrutinising the words and deeds of those who seek to govern us, contesting their declarations and records. These few hundred audience members stand for the people as a whole. The politicians in turn stand before them, answerable for their failings before the millions watching on live TV. Rarely is a politician so exposed, their authority so fragile. It is an important symbol of how power is supposed to work in a democracy.
At the same time, and for that very reason, there are few better opportunities for a candidate to promote his or her successes than live, national TV, facing down an opponent while engaging enthusiastically and constructively with members of the studio audience (and especially the critical ones).
Audiences in the studio and at home will learn much from the respective performances about candidates’ ability to cope with the unexpected under pressure, negotiating skills, command of detail. All instructive of what kind of prime minister we will get on September 7. They may learn a bit more about the policies, which is always helpful in an election.
In addition - and this is where the people’s forum format is different from a journalist-led event - we’ll see how well, or badly, the contenders understand where the Australian people are politically in 2013. And this, after all, is what will decide the outcome.