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Leaders’ debate highlights real differences on policy, but a unity ticket on civility

Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten showed they differ on a number of policy positions, but both kept the tone of the debate civil and free from “gotcha"s and gaffes. AAP/Mick Tsikas

Sky TV’s people’s forum on the evening of last Friday gave us something refreshingly different from recent federal election campaigns: a civil discourse between the two main political leaders.

Perhaps it was because Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten were in the presence of voters, and therefore on their best behaviour. Perhaps it was just that neither of them is from the Tony Abbott school of shirtfront politics.

In its place, an atmosphere of reason prevailed. This was helped by the vigilant but calibrated interventions of the moderator David Speers, creating space and time in which the audience were able to ask questions on a wide range of topics, and get answers that conveyed some actual meaning.

This was insiders encountering outsiders, and it yielded a superior result to previous debate formats where insiders encounter insiders – politicians and journalists – who then play their familiar game of Gotcha and Gaffe. In this game, the politicians are habitually on the defensive and the journalists on the attack. Public enlightenment is at a premium.

By contrast, the people’s forum lived up to its name. The audience consisted of 100 undecided voters from the seat of Macquarie, which takes in the Blue Mountains and the northwestern outskirts of Sydney. It has changed hands at every election since 1975, and at present is held for the Liberal Party by Louise Markus on a margin of 3.2%.

The audience was recruited by Galaxy Research, who surveyed a random sample of voters in the seat on their voting intention. Those who said they were undecided were then told of the forum and invited to participate. They were also asked which party they were leaning towards, and were recruited so that there was an approximate balance of “leaners” between the two main parties.

People who said in advance that they wanted to ask a question were asked to sit near the aisles. Speers selected them at random as he wandered around among the audience.

Their questions revealed something about voters’ priorities, and all were focused on issues. None were to do with personality politics or political strategy. And there were none to do with terrorism or boat people, the electorate presumably reckoning that nothing was to be gained by revisiting that particular field of bipartisanship.

Instead there were questions about jobs going offshore, corporate tax-avoidance, the Medicare levy, privatisation of government assets, tax-cut thresholds, superannuation, arts funding, regional hospital funding, childcare costs, education funding and the deficit.

When the politicians tried the old trick of getting back on message regardless of the question, Speers pulled them into line by repeating the nub of the question. This had the effect of minimising the opportunity for spin, and of forcing the politicians to do better than sloganeering.

The organic way in which the forum unfolded, the random selection of questioners and the unpredictability of the questions themselves created a kind of anti-journalism: no contrived story structure, no gaffe or gotcha, no media intervention between leaders and voters except for Speers’ light-touch refereeing.

Out of this rather low-key process emerged something of importance: a noticeable ideological divide between the two leaders on a range of issues. These included privatisation of government assets, funding for school education, and bank regulation.

Shorten said he thought the pendulum had swung too far towards privatisation of government assets; Turnbull left open the possibility of selling more. After three decades in which there has been little questioning of privatisation by either side, this signal from Shorten that enough is enough is a departure of some note from what has been bipartisan political wisdom. It is fundamentally an argument over the size and role of government, an issue of some significance.

On education funding, Turnbull focused on outcomes and value for money, while Shorten focused on children’s needs. Leaving aside arguments over amounts of money, which tend to get tediously and misleadingly bogged down, these two positions represent fundamental differences in ideals and objectives.

On banking regulation, Shorten asserted that a royal commission was overdue because the banks had shown that, left to themselves, they could not clean up their act. Turnbull asserted that competition would eventually sort the problems out, along with some prodding from the banking regulator. This was an argument about government intervention versus market forces (and a regulatory touch-up).

So the forum yielded no easy headlines and no sharp news angles, but created a conversation out of which the attentive voter learnt some useful things about the leaders and what they seem to stand for.

At the end, the audience were asked to indicate on their wristbands which way, if any, they were now inclined to vote. Of the 100 voters present, 42 nominated Shorten and 29 Turnbull, with the rest indicating it had not inclined them one way or the other.

This factoid supplied conventional journalism with a news hook. The Australian faithfully reported the arithmetic, which was acknowledged by its editor at large, Paul Kelly, but contradicted by another of its senior political writers, Dennis Shanahan, who defied the numbers to say Turnbull had won.

The night was over and the prince of reason had turned back into a frog.

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