Election 2013 media panel

The not so ‘great’ debate: Beyond the ‘notes scandal’

Kevin Rudd’s use of notes in last night’s debate was extraordinary and will probably be the most commented upon aspect of the debate. It demonstrated either nerves or a lack of understanding of the rules and neither is a good look. But, putting that howler aside, last night’s debate showed, yet again, why having a closed forum of journalists, politicians and party representatives makes for a pretty non-informative and, let’s be honest, dull debate.

I think debate moderator David Speers did a good job at pulling the leaders up when he thought they were going off topic or not answering a question. I thought his questions were reasonably good as well. But once the debate shifted to the panel of journalists and they began asking their questions, the debate became more like a limp, closed, press conference. It looked, and sounded, like an ‘insider’ event. Designed for and executed by politicians and journalists. In Australia, we have no independent debates commission and this debate was proof positive, if ever any more proof were required, about why we need the debates to be taken out of the hands of the two major party leaders and their advisers.

It’s not that the parties aren’t involved in the US or UK in determining debate rules and formats. Nor that there aren’t problems with the way it is done in the US where the Commission on Presidential Debates has been called a “secretive tax-exempt organization”. But having a body that is semi-autonomous from the campaign teams and specialises in debate formats over time, does help. At the very least, it means you see scheduled debates and more interesting formats. For example, take a look at Obama and McCain’s town hall debate in 2008:

Obama and McCain debate, 2008.

The questions from the audience were chosen beforehand and read by the debate host, but the candidates didn’t get to see the questions beforehand and they moved around and addressed the audience. When politicians talk to ‘ordinary people’, they tend to speak in a very different way than when they talk to journalists. They just can’t be as waffling, indirect, evasive or overly technical when addressing members of the public.

Two of the best things about the American style of pre-arranged, pre-scheduled debates on particular themes (such as economic policy or foreign policy and national security) is that 1) it allows some depth to the discussion because it is more focused on a topic but 2) it also means that newspapers and online sites tend to put out background and policy information the day of the debate so that audiences get some context and information to help them follow along. To take another example of debates from overseas - the British leaders’ debate in 2010 included the minor party Liberal Democrats’ leader and also included questions from audience members:

British leaders’ debate, 2010.

This 2010 British debate was the first televised leaders’ debate in the UK. In Australia, since 1984, every Australian federal election campaign except 1987 has included at least one televised debate between the major party leaders. We should be much better at this by now.

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