On Leaders’ Debates

Social media and saturation coverage of politics has rendered leaders’ debates almost irrelevant.

They rarely change the minds of voters en masse unless one of participants stuffs up badly. When this happens the mistake may go viral and capsize a campaign, but it is increasingly rare.

Consequently, both leaders try to say as little as possible and avoid straying from pre-prepared talking points scripted during practice sessions. For an enlightening contrast, google today’s presidential debate between Macron and Le Pen in France where content rudely intruded into the exchange.

Prime Ministers generally don’t like debates because it is their record in office which comes under scrutiny, especially if one is held early in the election campaign before the Opposition has unveiled most of its policies. Morrison’s media shtick is to aggressively attack interviewers who impertinently pose uncomfortable questions. He can’t digress as easily in these forums without reinforcing his reputation as a bully and pathological liar.

The Opposition Leader, on the other hand, is finally given equal billing with his adversary and because he needs to raise his public profile, the more air time the better. Albanese needs to use the debates to reassure the public that the media confected “gaffe crisis” was an aberration. He would much rather talk about Government incompetence, corruption and neglect.

Both men seem to think that the “preferred Prime Minister” poll is meaningful: it isn’t. Unpopular leaders like John Howard can win elections decisively.

There are no metrics for scoring these debates, so all the discussion of who won is nonsense and only fills up dead air on all the media platforms. The political commentariat like to tally them as if they are rounds in heavyweight boxing matches, but the public soon forgets unless there is a major fumble. If the number of swinging or undecided voters is low, as seems to be the case in this election, they are of even less significance.

Debates have become media events for the media. Judgement is based on how well leaders perform as actors, instead of whether the public learns anything about their substantive policies. The question of which leader has the best policies for the nation rarely, if ever, arises.

The choice of Sky News for the first debate was odd given so few watch the cable network, which was forced to stream it for free to gather a respectable audience. For Albanese and the ALP it must have seemed like being in a football match where the umpire was the other team’s coach. They knew this but need all the publicity they can get.

The sense of disappointment amongst Morrison’s cheer-squad on Sky when Albanese emerged relatively unscathed was palpable. The only entertaining aspect of the spectacle was watching the after darkies trying to spin the debate as a victory for their guy. And if you thought that was risible, check out Benson and Shanahan in The Australian today, who either wrote their op eds before the debate or watched something else entirely different last night.

All things considered, not very edifying.

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Scott Burchill

Dr Scott Burchill taught International Relations at Deakin University for 30 years