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Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese shaking hands at the third and final leaders' debate
Lukas Coch/AAP

Were minor parties the big winners? 3 experts on the final leaders’ debate

Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese faced off in the third and final leaders’ debate on Wednesday night on the Seven network, ten days ahead of the federal election on May 21.

Both leaders were criticised after the previous debate for being overly shouty and aggressive, so were perhaps unsurprisingly more civil this time around.

The debate canvassed a wide range of issues, including wages, inflation, women’s labour participation, childcare, an integrity commission, and climate change.

Of the around 160 undecided voters from pubs across the country, 50% awarded the debate to Albanese, 34% voted for Morrison, while 16% were still undecided.

Three Australian political experts analyse the debate and give their verdict on the leaders’ performances.

Read more: A shouty, unedifying spectacle and a narrow win for Albanese: 3 experts assess the second election debate

Narelle Miragliotta, Senior Lecturer in Australian Politics, Monash University

Leaders’ debates are an important ritual of elections, even if voters seem to pay little attention to them. TV ratings for the last two leaders’ debates suggest fewer voters are switching on than in previous elections.

In fairness, there are few incentives for voters to tune in to these events. These debates were relegated to (fairly) late evening viewing, and as more than one commentator observed of the second debate particularly, a poor debate format does little to help leaders distinguish themselves. It is painful and boring to watch squabbling politicians.

This final debate was not as shouty or as undignified as the second. Scott Morrison managed to stifle his smirk, Anthony Albanese avoided stumbling over his words, there was some substantive discussion on policy, each avoided talking over the other, and both even managed to say something nice about the other.

In their two-minute opening address, each leader stressed their perceived strengths. Morrison acknowledged his government hadn’t got everything right and there were big challenges ahead for the nation, but maintained that only his government has the experience to deliver the essential services and the infrastructure needed to keep the country safe.

For his part, Albanese spoke about his belief in the power of government to build a “better future” and the intention to work collaboratively with state governments, unions, workers, and small businesses to deliver that better future.

There was, however, no new major policy revelations, even if there was slightly more discussion about their policies for addressing climate change. Both leaders managed to stick to their speaking points, leaning in to their narratives about the character flaws of their opposite. Morrison reiterated his now familiar line that Albanese is dangerous and inexperienced, while Albanese reminded voters about Morrison’s trust and integrity deficits.

Perhaps one of the more interesting moments was when both leaders were asked to explain the appeal of the independents and minor parties. While Albanese was willing to acknowledge that leadership churn and instances of political corruption had eroded trust in the major parties, Morrison was only prepared to venture that it was the result of some unspecified external forces. Only one leader was willing to acknowledge the established parties’ complicity in public erosion in confidence in the major parties.

Is anyone likely to change their mind about either leader? Unlikely. Did either leader do enough to encourage the undecided voter off the proverbial electoral fence? According to around 160 undecided voters, Albanese won this debate. And if one had to venture why, it might be that there are limits to an appeal to the electorate that relies heavily on incumbency.

Verdict: Albanese over Morrison, but only just

Anthony Albanese and Scott Morrison with journalist Mark Riley
The third and final leaders’ debate was considerably more civil than the previous contest. Mick Tsikas/AAP

Read more: View from The Hill: Albanese and Morrison caught on fly-papers of wages, gender

Stephen Mills, Honorary Senior Lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Sydney

After last weekend’s shouty debate, this was the civil one, intelligently structured to allow the two leaders to argue their case across a range of substantive issues.

Both leaders managed to obey host Mark Riley’s injunction to talk about policy, not to interrupt, and to stick to the time limit.

Morrison did well in reciting his government’s achievements and throwing shade at Albanese’s inexperience and risk. Albanese did well in swinging each discussion around to his abundant, albeit sketchy, policy promises. Morrison chided Labor not to “promise the world when you know you can’t pay for it”; Albanese responded with his aspirational mantra: “we can do so much better than that”.

The downside was that, especially at the start of the debate, both leaders fell back on that scourge of modern politics, their talking points, generating storms of statistics and piles of platitudes.

Of the seven topics, I scored the first two (wages and cost of living) as a draw. I scored the third topic (character) as a win for Albanese, and the fourth (boat turnbacks) as a clear win for Morrison.

The most lively exchanges in the debate occurred on the fifth topic, covering the “teal” independents and their push for an integrity commission. The Labor leader had the better lines, including the simple acknowledgement, “We do need to clean up politics”. He also undermined Morrison’s brandishing of “347 pages of legislation” by saying, if legislation needed to be pre-approved by the opposition, “why would you vote for Scott Morrison on Saturday week?” I scored this as a win for Albanese.

The sixth topic, mining and carbon taxes, seemed a throwback to an earlier era of Australian politics, offering an easy start for Morrison on lower taxes; he threw in the pro-WA GST changes for good measure. But Albanese swung the debate to climate change, outlining plans for lower power prices, renewables and electric vehicles. When Morrison protested, Albanese punched hard: “…there he goes again. He says he supports net zero by 2050 and comes up with all the reasons why nothing should happen”. I scored this topic to Albanese.

Both men displayed a complete lack of empathy in dealing with the final topic, women. Despite “cheaper child care” being a Labor strong suit, this ended in a draw.

Unfortunately there was no mention of the Uluru Statement from the Heart or China and, in stark contrast to previous elections, hardly a peep about debt and deficits.

Verdict: Win to Albanese

Read more: Over the last 30 years, a fifth of polls have called the wrong winner. Here are 3 things poll-watchers need to understand

Susan Harris Rimmer, Professor and Director of the Policy Innovation Hub, Griffith University

I had four questions going into this final leaders debate:

  • was this the last chance to influence the roughly 7 million voters who will vote early or submit a postal vote, and if so, who best took advantage of that?

  • will either leader finally address climate change issues with the primacy they deserve?

  • is either leader going to go after the women’s vote after polling showed a distinct gender gap at this point in the campaign?

  • and what’s the impact of commercial television stations hosting all three debates?

Vote Early?

Elections in Australia are changing since the pandemic. More and more voters will be missing out on their democracy sausage by voting early or by post according to the Australian Electoral Commission.

The ALP held their launch in Perth on May 1, but the Coalition launch is this Sunday in Brisbane. The Greens got in early with a launch in January. The other minor parties have been out early with only a few key policy ideas, such as the UAP or the “teal” indepedent candidates. Will the early birds catch the worm this time round or are the Coalition right to think people only pay attention in the last 10 days?

If I were a voter going to the pre-polling booth tomorrow, would I have enough of an idea about the key policy differences between the major parties from that debate? The voter would certainly have a contrasting narrative to consider – that, roughly, the ALP has a plan for the future that sees investment in social policy as key, while the Coalition wants a strong economy and anyone but the Prime Minister is a risk.

But most of the debate felt like a rehash of the 2019 election issues that no longer turn voters around, like boat arrivals or a carbon tax.

Vote Climate?

Griffith’s Climate Action Beacon conducted the first of five annual Climate Action Surveys in September-October 2021 with 3,915 Australian adults completing the online questionnaire. This is one of the most ambitious climate change surveys yet conducted in Australia. We found this could be the climate election.

87% of the respondents indicated they believe climate change should be a priority for the government.

76% stated that climate change will be important to them when they vote in the next federal election, but this percentage varied by preferred political party: Australian Greens (90%), Australian Labor Party (72%), Liberal Party (45%), National Party (54%), and One Nation Party (33%).

Of note, mean levels of concern tended to be higher among intending National Party voters than intending Liberal voters. Also, the prevalence of recent increases in levels of concern about climate change was higher among intending National Party voters (43%) than among intending Liberal voter (33%).

So surely Morrison is taking a risk by not mentioning climate issues at all while Anthony Albanese made four references including opening and closing with the need for climate action.

Bogans vote but so do feminists

Polling this week said the Coalition and Morrison in particular was losing the support of female voters, and that Albanese needed to make more of an impression on female voters.

Mr Morrison’s approval rating was at 44% among women at this point in the 2019 election campaign, but is now just 29% averaged over the past three polls. Primary vote support for the Coalition among women has averaged 28% over the course of the campaign, compared with 34% among men.

It was good to see childcare raised as a key issue in this debate but treatment of women within parliament was handled badly. If this was the pitch to female voters from both leaders, it needed much more, especially from the Prime Minister.

Game On

The debate chaired by Mark Riley was a marked improvement from the previous free-for-all that was an unedifying democratic spectacle, but the game show trappings in the Channel 7 format were in poor taste.

The practice of using commercial stations for all three debates has some serious issues for voters actually trying to make decisions.

Verdict: Anthony Albanese by a margin but not a romp. Families settling for “mince rather than steak” is a line people will remember. But note that of the Channel Seven pub test folk, 16% were left undecided. That might mean minor parties are still the big winners from these three debates.

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