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Turnbull and Shorten face off in leaders’ debate: experts respond

Who took the points in the first leaders’ debate of the 2016 campaign? AAP/Tracey Nearmy

Turnbull and Shorten face off in leaders’ debate: experts respond

Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten have met in the first official debate of the 2016 election campaign, with spending on health and education, action on climate change, and the nature of leadership high on the agenda.

Questioned by a panel of three journalists, Turnbull claimed Labor has:

… not one measure that will deliver stronger economic growth or deliver more jobs.

Shorten, for his part, said Labor had “learnt our lesson” from the “difficult” Rudd-Gillard period of disunity and could be trusted on key policy areas such as schools funding, Medicare and climate change.

The Conversation’s experts watched the debate closely with an eye across these key policy areas and the leaders’ performances. Their responses follow. If you missed the debate, you can catch up on QUT professor of journalism, media and communication Brian McNair’s live tweeting here.


Debate low on substance, but Shorten takes the points

Natalie Mast, Associate Director, Performance Analytics, University of Western Australia

Malcolm Turnbull started the debate by positioning Australia within Asia and claiming he has the economic plan to secure high wages and future economic prosperity. Innovation, more jobs and more growth were his take-home messages.

Bill Shorten framed his opening statement by arguing Labor could be trusted on education, Medicare and the economy. His key messages focused on fairness and trust.

Given the debate lasted an hour, both leaders were heavy on rhetoric and low on detail. Throughout, Turnbull and Shorten ignored questions to deliver what seemed like mostly prepared answers. Turnbull twice failed to answer Laura Tingle’s first question: if he would govern in a manner more fitting to what voters had expected if he attains his own mandate.

Turnbull’s responses were generally framed within the prism of strong economic growth. Shorten claimed Labor’s principle in setting its policies to take to the electorate was one of “more repairs to the budget bottom line than spends”.

Shorten’s repeated attacks on the A$50 billion company tax cut over ten years, and in particular the fact the four big banks would benefit, suggest Labor’s focus groups aren’t supportive of the cuts “to the top end of town”.

Shorten did deliver a “zinger” that is likely to resonate within the segments of the electorate disappointed they haven’t seen the “real” Malcolm:

I genuinely lead my party, whereas your party genuinely leads you.

Turnbull tried to wedge Shorten on the issue of asylum seekers and offshore detention, while Shorten tried the same tactic in regard to climate change.

Overall, Shorten looked the slightly stronger of the two, appealing directly to voters. However, Turnbull’s articulate style exudes leadership. It’s likely the outcome won’t make much of a difference in terms of swaying voters.


A clear difference on economic issues

Saul Eslake, Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow, University of Tasmania

The division between the two major parties over economic issues ahead of this federal election is arguably clearer than at any other election since 1998 (when “the” economic issue was the Howard government’s proposal to introduce the GST).

The Coalition’s “plan for jobs and growth” has, as its centrepiece, a staged reduction in company tax, initially focused on “small” businesses but eventually reducing the rate paid by all businesses by five percentage points.

Labor, by contrast, believes – as Bill Shorten put it this evening – that “in order to have sustainable growth, you need to have fairness”, which it in turn believes will be attained by more spending on education and health, as opposed to a cut in company tax.

The problem for those watching or listening to the debate who are not already irrevocably committed to one of these perspectives or the other is that both leaders hold to their respective position as articles of faith, rather than as the outcome of reasoned argument.

Malcolm Turnbull was “in business” before entering parliament at the age of 50: as a result, he “knows” that lower taxes prompt businesses to invest, and to create jobs. Shorten, however, “knows” as a result of the time he spent “standing up for ordinary workers” before entering parliament that increased spending on education and health, rather than tax cuts for “the top end of town”, is what will “deliver” stronger economic growth.

I didn’t find either leader’s reasoning persuasive. Turnbull is right, in my view, to argue that stronger economic growth makes increased spending on education, health and other social programs affordable. But he didn’t convince me that the best way to achieve stronger economic growth was to cut company tax – especially for small businesses.

New figures released by the ABS on Friday show that businesses with fewer than 20 employees have generated just 5% of the total increase in private sector employment over the five years to 2014-15 (compared with 66% by businesses with 200 or more employees).

Shorten made no attempt to rebut Turnbull’s point that Australia’s experience does not support the view that merely spending more on education necessarily guarantees better educational outcomes, let alone stronger economic growth.

Both leaders evaded important questions. Turnbull didn’t explain how tax cuts that primarily benefit foreign companies and the big banks would result in increased economic growth. Shorten didn’t explain how his policies will result in a lower budget deficit over the four years to 2019-20 – although we will apparently get those answers “well before” election day.

Before they got onto climate change and “stopping the boats”, the two leaders clearly delineated the key differences in their approach to economic issues. But they each have a long way to go in convincing voters their approach is the better one.


Both trumpet their belief in education – but not the detail

Bronwyn Hinz, Policy Fellow at the Mitchell Institute, Victoria University

The debate clearly demonstrated the relative importance of education policy to the Coalition and to Labor, as well as their conceptualisation of what it encompasses.

Malcolm Turnbull didn’t mention it in his opening address, speaking instead on innovation, jobs and growth.

By contrast, Bill Shorten mentioned education within the first minute or so of his opening address, arguing that investment in high-quality education – specifically with well-funded public schools – was one of three key elements of Labor’s “Positive Plan for the Future” and a foundation of their plan for economic growth.

Shorten frequently returned to schools, and education and fairness more generally. He argued “you can trust Labor to stand up for education and training”; “we will properly fund all schools, government schools, according to their needs” and that they’ll make sure “all kids get a decent crack at getting to university”.

It is highly significant and encouraging that Shorten mentioned “childcare” as a key element of Labor’s “positive plan for education”. Reams of research show high-quality early childhood education (preschool and the early learning that precedes it) is increasingly recognised to be at least as important as schooling.

While Australia has made huge advances in both participation rates and service quality in early learning in recent years, we are still playing catch-up with other advanced nations. One-third of young children do no attend preschool for the hours needed to make a difference, and children in disadvantaged areas have fewer high-quality early education and care services available to them. Research shows greater investment in this space is one of the most significant investments in education and productivity that governments can make.

Turnbull proclaimed his belief in “the transformative effect of education”. He said that “of course we believe that government funding must be allocated on the basis of need” while quickly reminding viewers that educational outcomes have been worsening over time despite total school education expenditure by governments increasing.

This is true. And the reason it is true is because much of this increased expenditure hasn’t been targeted to where educational needs have been greatest.

Independent schools serving very affluent communities and charging tens of thousands of dollars each year in fees still reap thousands in government funding, while public schools serving the down-and-out struggle to make ends meet on half to one-third of that amount. Disadvantage is increasingly concentrated in government (public) schools, yet funding to non-government (Catholic and independent schools) has historically increased much faster, largely due to Commonwealth government largesse.

I was surprised that neither Shorten nor Turnbull said the word “Gonski”. Instead they spoke more about fair or needs-based schools funding. I was also surprised that neither went into the details of their policies, both of which were announced some time ago, and both of which encompass much more than funding quantums.


Still little the wiser on healthcare spending

Jane Hall, Professor of Health Economics and Director, Centre for Health Economics Research and Evaluation, University of Technology Sydney

Both leaders were asked for their medium-term plan for funding health care. The sustainability of the system as we know it means ensuring that no Australians are prevented from receiving care due to the costs.

Sustainability also requires balancing revenue and expenditure – but, cutting expenditure for one funder often means moving the burden of costs somewhere else. For example, the 2014 budget measure to save Commonwealth outlays on public hospitals just moved the problem to the states. And any increase in co-payments for pharmaceuticals moves the cost to consumers.

Health policy has been a key point of difference and a vote-grabber since Medicare began. This time, the government is banking on economic growth that is sufficient to support a generous social welfare safety net. Labor is campaigning on bulk billing, the freeze on Medicare rebates, no increase in the co-payments for pharmaceuticals, and trust to defend Medicare.

There is no magic level of bulk billing that is right or essential for Medicare as we know it. Bulk billing is most important in general practice where 84% consultations are bulk-billed. GP bulk-billing rates have been rising; they are currently at the highest level since Medicare began.

The Labor government introduced the Medicare rebate freeze as a temporary (nine-month) measure in 2013. This meant the 2013 annual increase was not awarded. Under the Coalition government the freeze has been extended to 2020. The freeze on rebates does not mean there is a freeze on doctor fees; doctors are free to set their fees at any level. So what is a freeze likely to mean for the longer term?

The widespread availability of primary care without an upfront fee is an important way of ensuring access to health care, particularly for the economically disadvantaged. The backlash over the introduction of the $7 co-payment attempted in the 2014 budget shows this has become an iconic issue for Medicare.

There are five weeks to go before election day. Labor has promised that a hospital funding policy is still to come. Plenty of time for more hats and more rabbits, then.


A matte makeup debate

Tom Clark, Associate Professor, College of Arts, Victoria University

Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten walked from Federation Square to the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Saturday, striving together to make political leadership relevant to things their constituents care about. Sunday’s debate extended that collective spirit.

It was a remarkably flat debate, where the matte facial makeup seemed to take all the lustre off the discussion. It was full of such wooden and forced remarks as the leaders’ media advisors train them to avoid. They made not a single point to lift the home viewer’s gaze above the horizon. They could barely even offer us a cheap and nasty laugh to remember them by – not even at each other’s expense.

What we saw and heard was guided by an assumption that most or all of the participants share. Political insiders know most voters are not paying close attention to the election campaign yet, but believe that situation will change at some moment before the 2 July poll date.

Exactly when that will happen, the pollsters can only speculate. But it is a moment they are anxious to see arrive as soon as possible. Because this is a longer campaign than usual, there is less than the usual confidence that voters will tune into Australia’s greatest reality TV show in a timely fashion.

In the interim, the leaders and the pundits keep rehearsing their lines, aiming to develop really good ones by the time the broad electorate takes notice, and hoping not to make any mistakes too memorable along the way.

And meanwhile, the politicians and their media co-creators are working together to give the rest of us reasons to care, however uncharismatic the effect. The co-operative front reveals their assumption that we don’t particularly care just yet.

This debate is a conspicuously clear sign the major parties have accepted a mutual need to prop up popular engagement with the Australian democracy they lead. It is work they desperately need to unite in, if they want to protect this cosy duopoly they have overseen since 1941.

Will it be too little too late?


The debate in tweets

Brian McNair, Professor of Journalism, Media and Communication, Queensland University of Technology

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