Australia’s election silences call for mandatory debates

| May 28, 2019

Elections are debates in quest of power. But Australia is poorly served by the lack of a formal debate structure during federal elections.

The campaign, just done and dusted, was sad proof—yet again—that Australia’s major political parties can’t be relied on to deliver face-to-face debates.

The Liberal and Labor parties give lip service to debates. Too often, though, their lips are sealed when it comes to formal face-offs.

In the political fight for power, the two parties aren’t interested in having to explain themselves on stages they don’t control.

The leaders and apparatchiks view debates as high risk. Governments abhor formats that give equal status to the opposition. The party in the lead fears mishaps, while the trailing party clamours for as much attention as it can get.

The reality is that the parties have veto power over format and frequency and forum.

In the 2019 election, the Liberal and Labor parties limited the number of debates between the leaders and killed debates between ministers and shadow ministers in most key portfolios.

Australia saw no debates on foreign affairs or defence. Zip. Zero. Zounds! This is astounding and appalling. This is system failure delivered by our politics in the service of narrow party interest, at the expense of national purpose.

The habit in recent elections has been for separate defence and foreign affairs debates, between the minister and shadow minister, at the National Press Club (NPC) in Canberra. This time, zip.

To get an idea of what you missed, see my columns on the NPC’s foreign and defence debates in the 2016 election.

The 2016 defence debate was calm and agreeable in tone, demonstrating, as Labor’s shadow minister Stephen Conroy said, ‘an overwhelming degree of bipartisanship’—except on China.

The 2016 foreign affairs face-off started with the South China Sea and ended on China’s suppression of internal dissent. Wouldn’t you have savoured a rerun of those questions this time? If you wanted to be a lot kinder to the parties than I’m prepared to be, perhaps they just didn’t want to talk about China.

For my favourite NPC pre-election moment, come back to the 2010 foreign affairs debate, when shadow foreign minister Julie Bishop was staving off questions about the multilateral scepticism of the Liberal leader, Tony Abbott.

My version of the Abbott chant was ‘bilateralism good, multilateralism bad’, and Bishop—in a moment of exasperation spiced with humour—snapped that the Liberals weren’t actually arguing that Australia should withdraw from the United Nations.

Labor’s foreign minister in that 2010 debate, Stephen Smith, said the NPC served up the first China question he’d got in the campaign. Oh, happy days. Or daze?

Another feature of the 2010 debate was the Labor–Liberal ‘golden consensus on aid’, with both sides happily promising lots more aid gold, doubling the annual amount to $8–10 billion. It was a time long ago, in a universe far from here.

In this year’s campaign, the NPC pushed hard for a series of debates, seeking to entrench recent habit and make it established tradition. Alas, most of the debates the NPC proposed came to zip.

The no-show failures happened because parties wouldn’t agree and ministers and shadow ministers wouldn’t front up.

NPC debates that didn’t happen were on defence, foreign affairs, immigration, environment, energy, finance, industrial relations and northern Australia.

The three debates that did happen were on treasury, health and agriculture. Plus one leaders’ debate, with the interviewing done by NPC president, the ABC’s Sabra Lane.

Lane’s concluding question to Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten was whether they’d support the creation of an ‘independent debates commission’. The Labor and Liberal leaders gave identical one-word answers: ‘Yes.’

Treat that agreement as equivocal evasion—fudge, not commitment.

Australia needs to create a federal election debates commission.

We can’t rely on the two parties of government to make it happen. It’ll need a lot of pushing from minor parties doing keeping-them-honest duty, the parliamentary press gallery and the NPC. As the national broadcaster, the ABC should push the idea. So should SBS. Then enlist the great and the good to demand it happens.

The Liberal and Labor leaders said yes when put on the spot. Make ’em deliver.

The way the big parties treat debates as dangers to be minimised short-changes Australia. If the parties took their eyes off tactical push and shove, they’d notice that debate aversion harms their larger interests.

The parties are confounded that millions of Australians don’t wait for the big campaign launches and promises, and do lodge a postal or absentee vote in the three weeks before polling day. Voter cynicism about politics is feeding campaign apathy—and vice versa.

A series of debates rolling through an election campaign would offer voters a reason to pay sustained attention.

During a four-week campaign, there should be four leaders’ debates—every Wednesday, for instance. Each week there should be portfolio debates; the press club’s list would be a good starting place.

Aim for a firm schedule of four leaders’ debates and eight to 10 portfolio debates.

The independent commission, established by parliament, would set the debate formats and rules, then step back from the fray. Send the journos in to lob the questions.

It’s risible that in the 2019 campaign, the first two leaders’ debates were on the media platforms of a minor sport. The first debate, in Perth, was run on the Seven Network’s secondary free-to-air channel. The second debate, dubbed a ‘people’s forum’, was even more niche; to see that, you needed to have access to Foxtel’s Sky News Australia.

Set up a federal election debates commission to ensure every Australian has instant access to what should be a permanent, scheduled element of every federal election.

This article was published by The Strategist.