Australian Federal Leaders Debates: A New Approach
Project Coordinator, Nick Rowley
Australia needs to demonstrate new, non-partisan, democratic and rigorous approaches to understanding and debating issues of national importance at election time. By the time of the next Federal election in 2013, there is the opportunity to achieve two things:
1. three well-researched, informed, professionally conducted televised leaders debates during the next Federal election backed by an engaging, interactive digital platform, and
2. agreement to establishing a new Australian Electoral Debates Commission to take carriage of ensuring high quality debates into the future.
Each will enhance the quality of public scrutiny over our prospective leaders at election time and serve to enhance Australian democracy.
Political campaigns in Australia have become increasingly dominated by a focus on the Party leaders, personality politics and the need to set the daily media agenda. Politicians are tightly scripted on the basis of market testing, leaving little opportunity for serious questioning on the content of alternative policies.
As in other Westminster systems, our politics has become increasingly presidential, with the media and public increasingly focussed on the role of the Premier. Nurtured by the influence of television, Australia now has a de facto presidential system. The emergence and rapid development of new digital media (podcasting; Facebook; Twitter etc.) is also rapidly changing both the nature of political communication and ways in which the public might engage positively with the political process.
A productive and tangible means to improve the quality of debate and questioning of our political leaders at the time of the Federal election (when the public should be most engaged in the political process) would be to establish an agreed series of well-structured, properly researched televised leaders debates through the campaign.
As in most parliamentary democracies, in Australia how the number and format for debates is established is an ad hoc, closed, secretive process of political parties negotiating with broadcasters to get an outcome that they believe best suits their leader. It is ultimately a self-serving process for all involved: the broadcasters (who want to host the debate) and the political parties (who seek a number and format for the debate that suits the perceived strengths of their leader).
The existing arrangement falls well short of the highest standards of electoral integrity; the quality of Australian democracy is impaired. The current process fails to ensure proper public scrutiny of alternative policies and approaches to vital national issues and challenges. It serves party interest above that of a vibrant representative democracy supported by a wise and informed citizenry. Australia has a proud history of embracing democratic innovation. Just as with universal suffrage and the secret ballot, Australia now has an opportunity to push towards world’s best practice by incorporating the most positive elements of leaders’ debates in other democracies. By harnessing the dynamic opportunities of new media, Australia would demonstrate how properly researched and professionally implemented debates can enhance public engagement and scrutiny of those elected representatives who aspire to the highest office of power.
The Institute for Democracy and Human Rights Symposium
To coincide with the Romney – Obama Presidential debates taking place in the United States, the Institute is planning to convene a high-level symposium this November on how to most effectively undertake television debates prior to the next Federal election. This aims to achieve:
- Greater understanding of the experience of undertaking Prime Ministerial / Presidential debates in other parliamentary democracies from those involved in the practice of negotiating, developing and delivering leaders TV and web-based debates in other jurisdictions.
- Engagement with a group of key Australians with an interest in achieving high quality Prime Ministerial debates prior to the next election including representatives of the broadcast, online and print media; former politicians; academics and third sector organisations (such as the Australian Council of Trade Unions and the Business Council of Australia) .
- Heightened public awareness of the value of effectively engaging with the electorate through a series of well-researched, informed, professionally conducted televised leaders’ debates during the next Federal election backed by an engaging, interactive digital platform.
The symposium would help inform and develop a clear proposal to be presented to the broadcasters, political parties and leaders in the first half of 2013. An edited version of the symposium proceedings will be published both in hard-copy and digital forms.
As Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute, Nick Rowley will lead this work.
The day-long symposium would include no more than 20 people and would aim to attract two individuals with experience of either the process in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and France. Once a clear proposal for establishing and servicing the debates during the next Federal campaign is drafted, and an outline of a new Australian Electoral Debates Commission has been developed, the support of the broadcasters, politicians and Party Secretaries would be sought.
Current practice in four democracies
The first televised Presidential debate, between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, was held in 1960. There were debates between 1960 and 1976. From 1976 to 1987 the nonpartisan League of Women Voters administered the debates. In 1987, the League withdrew from debate sponsorship in protest at the major candidates attempting to dictate how the debates were conducted.
The two major political parties then assumed control of organising presidential debates through the establishment of the Commission on Presidential Debates (www.debates.org/) headed by former chairs of the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee.
- It has become a convention that there be three Presidential and one vice-Presidential debate in the month prior to the November poll.
- Dates and venues for the debates are agreed and known well in advance.
- 15% support in public opinion polls is required to be part of the debates.
- To date there has been very little use of new media to help structure the debate or engage with the electorate in new ways.
The first televised Prime Ministerial debates were held in 2010 between David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Following disagreement about the need for televised Prime Ministerial debates going back to 1964, Sky News began (in 2009) a campaign for leaders’ debates. This was followed by a joint proposal from the BBC, ITV and BSkyB to stage three live election debates between leaders of the three main political parties, one debate for each broadcaster. No institution has been established to administer the debates.
- Three one-and-a-half hour Prime Ministerial debates were held and broadcast by each of ITV, BSkyB and the BBC over three successive Thursday evenings during the election campaign.
- Each debate was structured around particular subjects (the first on domestic affairs; the second on international affairs, and the third on economic affairs).
- In addition, one debate focused on the economy was led by the parties’ financial spokesmen.
- The audience for each debate was made up of around 200 people selected by a polling company broadly to represent a cross-section of the electorate.
- Questions were garnered from suggestions made by the audience, as well from suggestions submitted by the general public by email and read out by the moderator.
- Each debate secured an audience of more than 12 million viewers. All major broadsheet newspapers and a substantial number of web-based platforms covered the debate in detail.
The first Canadian Leaders debates were held in 1968. Traditionally there are two debates held over two nights, one in French, the other in English. They usually involve more than two candidates and are administered by a consortium of the main Canadian television networks.
- Debates have involved as many as five Party leaders.
- The criteria for taking part are less stringent than in the United States (parties must have representation in the Lower House of Parliament and popular support of 5% in the most recent public opinion polls).
- The Greens Leader was controversially excluded from the 2011 debates on the basis of not having representation in the Lower House (despite receiving more than 6% support in the 2008 election and polling above 5%).
- Questions have been posed by the public using pre-taped segments selected from questions submitted to the consortium of TV companies via email.
The first French-language presidential debates were held in 1974. Traditionally they occur between the two rounds of the presidential elections, involving the final two candidates going forward to the second vote. No institution has been established to administer the debates.
- Debates have been long (the 2012 debate was almost three hours) and involve a single journalist and the two candidates.
- In 2002 incumbent President Jaques Chirac refused to debate his challenger Jean-Marie Le Pen.
- The convention is for a single debate prior to the second vote.
- In 2012 incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy called for three debates centreing on the economy, social issues, and international relations. The proposal was rejected by François Hollande who argued the traditional single debate was sufficient, and should “last as long as necessary” (which it did!).