The innovative online debate was a livelier affair than the turn-off one at the National Press Club earlier in the campaign, though not a big moment of the campaign.
It was Bill Shorten who was the nimbler on the night. Malcolm Turnbull seemed more stuck on his old lines, certainly immediately disobeying the request of moderator Joe Hildebrand for them to put away their slogans. Shorten hit home more directly, sticking to the practical.
This was highlighted at the very end, when they were asked for their visions. Turnbull defaulted to rhetoric. “We have the most exciting opportunities in our history,” he said, launching into the scale and pace of change and how “we’ve got to be innovative”.
In contrast, Shorten’s vision was targeted to be voter-friendly: to save Medicare, have every school properly resourced, make sure working mums get relief from childcare costs, and on and on.
A live audience of 30 from marginal seats gave Shorten the marks by 17 to seven.
The debate’s pace and brevity (45 minutes) were good, but also its limitation; Hildebrand was like a railway guard who couldn’t let the train stop at any station for long.
Shorten’s boldest moment was to grab the Facebook game for his advantage, telling people to press “Like” if they would prefer to have fibre than copper for their National Broadband Network. This brought the most popular reaction in that segment. It was the sort of trick one might have expected from the internet-savvy Turnbull.
Shorten, considered to be behind at this stage of the election campaign, perhaps thought he had little to lose by being bold. Also, with the experience of many people’s forums behind him, he is adroit with interjections and challenges.
Questions, through Facebook beforehand and during the debate, and from the live audience, covered penalty rates, climate change, housing affordability, company tax, mental health, unemployment in regional areas, the unaffordability of university education, same-sex marriage, politicians’ perks (this last is always impossible for politicians to answer to the satisfaction of a sceptical public – Turnbull admitted “I’m probably the worst person to talk about it”).
The very first question went to the core of a disillusioned electorate: given the number of changes of prime ministers and the lies and back-flips by both parties, why should people trust anything a politician said? Why vote Labor or Liberal and not for an independent?
Turnbull waffled on about economic matters until Hildebrand brought him back to the question of churn. Turnbull quipped he was “very committed to the prime minister being the same after the election as … now”.
The light line filled the moment but left unanswered the point – this “trust” issue goes to the heart of what many voters are feeling, reflected for instance in the rise and rise of the Nick Xenophon Team.
On the issue of penalty rates, Turnbull pledged the government would make no change. It was an answer that won’t please some sections of business. When Shorten challenged him to put in a submission to the Fair Work Commission (FWC) inquiry on the issue, Turnbull responded that the FWC was meant to be independent of government.
On the cost of university education Turnbull said it was vitally important it was accessible and the government was “not going to deregulate fees entirely”.
On the proposed same-sex marriage plebiscite, Turnbull was asked “what the hell are we waiting for?” He reiterated his support for same-sex marriage and said he and Lucy would be voting yes in the plebiscite, which he was confident would be carried.
Pressed by Hildebrand on why the government did not just legislate, Turnbull was frank: “That’s a very fair point to make. But my party decided prior to my becoming prime minister to have a plebiscite.” In other words, don’t blame him.
Shorten said, “I don’t want to give haters a chance to come out from under the rock,” a potent line given Orlando. He threw out a challenge to Turnbull to have a parliamentary vote – “let’s just lead … let’s just be done with it”. To which Turnbull tried to make the best of the position he had inherited from Tony Abbott, saying: “we stick to our promises, Bill. We’ve made a promise to have a plebiscite.”
The debate was watched by 123,000 online, and an unknown number via its limited TV screening.
A Seven Network ReachTEL on Friday night had the Coalition moving to a 51-49 two-party lead compared to 50-50 a week ago. Turnbull led Shorten as better prime minister 57.6% to 42.4%, compared with 55.4%-44.6% last week.