Britain's election is a recipe for better campaign debates

22 July 2010

Sydney Law School's World Universities Debating Champions, Christopher Croke and Steven Hind suggest a fresh approach is needed to stir up viewers' interest in televised election debates in an opinion piece in The Canberra Times.

Faced with the choice between the MasterChef finale and the prime ministerial debate on Sunday night, most Australians will choose the cooking show. It's not our fault we'd rather watch a cooking show. Election debates have become so bland and unenlightening that we all know there will be more substance, flair and inspiration on offer in the Masterchef kitchen.

For the most part, Australian elections are a model for the world. Our seats are free from gerrymandering, our ballots (while often big enough to carpet the living room) are relatively easy to use and count and our campaigns are comparatively cheap and clean. We've been left for dead in one area, however: our prime ministerial debates. For too long, they have been dry, dull and unrevealing affairs. The leaders pander to a squiggly line on the screen and their answers do little to illuminate the differences between the parties.

In this year's elections in Britain, the three debates held between the major parties proved to be instrumental in generating public interest and inquiry into the election campaign. More than 41/2 hours of debate between Labour's Gordon Brown, the Conservatives' David Cameron and Liberal-Democrat Nick Clegg helped publicly chart the contours of the ideological and policy differences between their parties. The electorate's verdict was inconclusive but many now believe that the sober and intelligent tone of the debates was instrumental in highlighting the opportunity for bipartisan compromise and laying the groundwork for coalition government.

As Australia faces its own debate between Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and Prime Minister Julia Gillard on Sunday, we could learn a thing or two from the success of the British debates. First, Australia would be well advised to finally institute an independent commission with responsibility for convening and coordinating the debates. Before the 2007 election, then Labor leader Kevin Rudd outlined his wish to establish a prime ministerial debates commission modelled on the American Commission on Presidential Debates. Britain has a less formal panel of political parties and broadcasters who jointly and equally decide the format of the debates. Rudd's proposal for a commission was well-received at the time and remains a good one.

The debate over the debates is one of the tired constants of any Australian election campaign and produces the poor outcomes we're now stuck with. An independent commission is a useful way of ensuring that the debates take place in a competitive and fair fashion. The debates should be scheduled far in advance, with candidates given sufficient time to prepare. A separate commission also serves as a safeguard to ensure that where sufficient public support exists, a third party candidate can be allowed to take part. In the 1992 United States presidential election, that was Ross Perot. This year, the real story of Britain's election debates was the elevation of Clegg, whose call to break the "old" two-party duopoly on power resonated among the British electorate.

Second, Australia should rethink the press gallery's hold over asking questions. The British debates featured only questions from a selected audience of undecided voters or from questions submitted by the public online. As we see every week on the ABC's Q&A, questions from the audience are important, offering the opportunity for voters to directly press issues that concern them. The format often turns up new and novel questions on a wide range of issues. Audience questions would also help generate and renew public interest in the debates. To the extent that the debates are partly about judging the character and temperament of each party's leader, the opportunity to directly interact with voters provides a useful way to probe past the parties' platitudinous policy statements.

Third, the success of the British debates has partly been due to the adoption of a single moderator. Traditionally, Australian leaders have resisted the single moderator, rarely able to agree on who it should be. Yet the 10-person panel we saw at the National Press Club debate earlier this year is a poor alternative. The three-person panel announced for this Sunday's debate is a bare improvement. A single moderator has a far greater capacity to ensure that the candidates answer questions and engage each other. Before the first British debate, Cameron expressed concern that the debate would only feature eight questions. He was right that it did, but his concern was misplaced. The ]one moderator ensured that the time allocated to free discussion between the candidates allowed an actual debate to take place.

Election debates between leaders are about more than measuring the cranial candlepower of prime ministerial aspirants. They are opportunities for the public to engage with the competing visions for the country that the leaders are offering, at a moment when public attention is most concentrated. As the British debates showed, they offer the opportunity to widen and deepen the electoral conversation. In a time when we constantly bemoan the similarity of the two major parties, it is an experience we would do well to take note of, and may just help the

debates see off the challenge of a reality cooking show.

Contact: Greg Sherington

Phone: +61 2 9351 0202

Email: 752534327e345c0c593f340b30250476031456365c3b680e091c052c27