The Great Debate Debacle

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Sunday, 18 August 2013 15:57 by Ad astra
Has anyone had a good word to say about the Great Debate last Sunday? What was it all about? What was the intent of the organizers?

Was it to provide entertainment for the viewers of the channels involved?
Was it to try out some new opinion-counting gadgetry?
Was it to stage a head-to-head contest to pick a winner?
Was it to see who was the best debater?
Was it to satisfy the debating elite by following their preferred format?
Was it to see who had the sharpest repartee, the best rejoinder?
Was it to see who exhibited the coolest demeanour, the highest confidence?
Was it to look for stumbles, inept utterances, embarrassing gaffes, headline makers?
Was it to make the involved journalists look erudite, sharp, and perceptive?
Was it to give fodder for the TV and radio news, and the next day’s papers?

I suspect it was all of the above.

Yet it turned out to be paltry entertainment and showed lamentable inconsistency between counting gadgets, with several picking Kevin Rudd a comfortable winner, while another recorded the striking reverse. It never assessed debating attributes and oral skills directly, and failed to satisfy the debating pundits. It only obliquely addressed demeanour and confidence and found a few stumbles, Rudd’s use of notes being the one most mentioned. It did show though how out of touch and inept the journalists were at organizing and conducting such an event. It certainly did provide fodder for lots of news and opinion writing, most of it inconsequential or uninformed. Overall though, the Great Debate was a debacle.

Was it to help voters decide who was the most suitable leader to be the next PM?
Was it to enlighten voters about the salient issues of the election?
Was it to tell voters about the vision the leaders have for the nation?
Was it to inform voters about how the leaders viewed the challenges ahead?
Was it to help voters decide who had the best policies to cope with them?
Was it to help voters decide who had the most accurate costings?
Was it to help voters feel confident that at least one of the leaders had what it takes to lead the nation effectively, efficiently, and wisely for the next triennium?

In my view, it was none of the above. I doubt if these aims entered into the minds of the organizers. If they did, if the organizers were hoping to elucidate these matters, the ‘debate’ was an abject failure.

Yet, we ought not to be surprised. If one were hoping to address these issues, why would the organizers and interrogators be drawn from a decaying and incompetent Fourth Estate that has shown itself to be remote from mainstream Australians, trapped in the Canberra echo-chamber where groupthink abounds and reverberations deafen, where a foreign mogul issues instructions from on high about what he wants and how his journalists shall get it for him?

If we have a repeat of the Great Debate, the concept of debates between leaders at election time will atrophy and die. The format was wrong, the organizers were unsuitable, the interrogators inappropriate, and it was not even enjoyable entertainment.

It’s easy to be critical. It’s not so easy to be innovative, to be constructive. What follows is an attempt to outline a foundation for a debate that has a chance of being more informative for voters. I recognize that there may be resistance from one or more of the political parties to any attempt to give voters sound evidence on which to base their voting decisions. I suspect that for both major parties the crucial tasks are as follows:

Avoid any error that diminishes the party’s prestige or the leader’s status.
Avoid saying anything that will be fodder for the gaffe-hungry Fourth Estate.
Avoid committing to anything that is contrary to party policy.
Avoid committing to anything that might come back to haunt the party.
Avoid promises or suggestions that might turn out to be inappropriate, unattainable, or politically unwise.
Avoid giving figures or costings unless they are unquestionably correct.
Never miss an opportunity to criticize the opponent.
Never miss an opportunity to make a hypercritical comment, or utter a well-tried slogan.
Put down and embarrass the opponent at every opportunity.
Impugn the opponent’s character, motives and intent.
Repeat criticisms no matter how well worn, no matter how out-of-date.
Use sarcasm liberally. Demean at every opportunity.
Use distortions of the truth ‘when it is safe to do so’.
Insist that no matter how poorly the debate has gone for you, you won.
Be ready to remind the media of any gaffes, misstatements, inaccuracies, or lies your opponent perpetrated during the debate.

Given this formidable list of negative tasks that both sides always have in mind, it would not be unreasonable to conclude that a rational and productive debate between leaders is simply not possible to arrange. Anyway let’s try.

What I want to know before voting can be summarized as follows:

What vision do the leaders have for this nation for the next three years, and the next decade?
Put another way, what sort of nation would they wish to see in three and ten years?
Given that Australia exists in a global economy where what is happening elsewhere impinges comprehensively on our economy, especially what is happening in China, India, Japan, United States, Europe, the developing economies in our region, and in South America, what are the economic challenges facing the nation now, and likely to be in the next decade?
How do the leaders plan to address these challenges, one by one?
Do the leaders seek to bring the Budget back into balance?
If so, when do they expect they might be able to do this?
How do they plan to do this?
What moves do they plan to improve revenue and reduce expenditure to achieve this?
How do they plan to correct the longstanding structural defects in the Budget that so adversely affect it now?
How do they plan to reduce debt, over what period, and in what circumstances?
What are the attributes for the economy for which each leader is striving?
In particular, what are the desirable levels of growth, unemployment, participation, productivity, debt to GDP ratio, terms of trade, rating agency ratings, consumer and business confidence, inflation, RBA cash rates, interest rates, investment, business activity (retail, manufacturing, mining, agricultural), housing starts, housing affordability, business starts and defaults, and infrastructure development?
What are their specific policies to develop and to grow the economy?
What are their specific policies to create jobs?
Specifically, what are their policies to support car manufacturing?
Specifically, what are their policies to support small business?
What policies do they have in other portfolio areas that are designed to support the economy?
What is their tax policy?
What changes to tax policy are they advocating? Is a change to the GST an option?
How might these be brought about?
What are their priorities for expenditure?
Specifically, what emphasis do they propose to give to major areas of expenditure: on health, aged care and disability; education; welfare and transfer payments; immigration; defence; diplomatic activity and overseas aid; and the public service?
Will all policies and their cost be made available well before Election Day?

The questions above are related to the economy. But how many of these have been addressed in the campaign and in the Great Debate?

As Ben Eltham pointed out: “All in all, we’re not hearing a lot of detail from our politicians about their economic policies. Instead, the ongoing fascination with the deficit as a proxy for economic management continues to distract from the bigger picture. In a tougher and more substantial media environment, this lack of detail would be called out, as Colebatch does today on Opposition costings. But on the whole, the media continues to obsess over trivia, like Kevin Rudd’s notes in Sunday night’s leaders’ debate, or Tony Abbott’s unfortunate turn of phrase about suppositories.”

Ross Gittins says: “The two leaders' aim in the debate was the same as their aim in this campaign: to make it to election day while giving as few commitments as possible about what they'll do in the next three years.” Later he opines: “In modern campaigning, tough issues aren't debated, they're closed off.”

We are likely to reach Election Day with very few answers to these economic questions. At least Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan, and later Kevin Rudd, Chris Bowen and Penny Wong addressed, and clearly spelt out the economic challenges facing this nation in the decade ahead. Everyone ought to know them by now.

In contrast, Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey, Andrew Robb and Mathias Cormann have never done so. Indeed, to a man they have denied the dire global economic situation, as if it never existed, as if it did not exist now. Instead, they have tried to sheet home to the Government responsibility for the budgetary problems it faces as a result of falling revenue. It’s all the Government’s fault according to them, and has nothing to do with the slowdown in the economy of China and its diminishing need for resources, nothing to do with the fall in the world prices for commodities, nothing to do with the recession in Europe or the sluggish economy in the US, nothing to do with the high Australian dollar. It’s all Labor’s mismanagement that has caused the problem. And with a compliant, unquestioning Fourth Estate, there is almost no one to challenge the Coalition’s disingenuousness, deception and outright lies. They are spread far and wide by the Murdoch press, particularly through its tabloid headlines, with Fairfax, and even the ABC echoing them. The voices of the few sensible and balanced commentators, such a Ross Gittins, Peter Martin, Stephen Koukoulas, and Laura Tingle, are drowned out by the cacophony of adverse comment streaming daily from the anti-Labor media.

Labor has attempted via several formal addresses by Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd and Chris Bowen to spell out how it plans to counter the adverse global economic environment in which Australia is immersed, and manage the transition of our economy from a resource-based one to a more diversified one that focuses on manufacturing, service provision and agriculture. In contrast, all we have heard from the Coalition is a bunch of motherhood statements, a plethora of oft-repeated slogans, and precious little substance.

If you think that is unfair comment, take a look through the Coalition’s formal statements in its booklet: Our Plan Real Solutions for All Australians, the one that Abbott and his team clutch to their chest during pressers, always cover side out. It’s quite nicely laid out, and easy to follow. Download the PDF file and scroll through the content. At first there is some statements about Delivering a strong, prosperous economy and a safe, secure Australia. Then scroll to page 28 and read the section headed: Building a Five pillar economy and unleashing Australia’s potential.

Some of you may nod in approval because there are few motherhood aspirations there that could reasonably be challenged, but look for the detail about HOW these aspirations are to be accomplished. Don’t expect too much. Most of it you will have heard before. It is fine sounding, but superficial. This is what Ben Eltham had to say in New Matilda: “The Coalition has a plan to build a “five-pillar economy”, but details on this pentagonal wonder are hard to find. How will the Coalition drive growth in one of those five pillars, education and research? Apparently, according to the Coalition’s “Our Plan” brochure, “by removing the shackles and burdens holding the industry back and by making the industry more productive and globally competitive.” Clearly, he is left underwhelmed by detail in the Coalition’s ‘Real Solutions’.

This is what a debate between leaders ought to be about – teasing out the aspirations for the economy and wrapping them in the detail of how the aspirations will be achieved. The leaders ought not to be able to get away with platitudinous targets; it is the how that transforms laudable goals into actual achievements. That’s what we need to know. A good moderator ought to be able to extract that information, if indeed the leader is in possession of it. Perhaps the Chris Bowen/Joe Hockey encounter on Q&A on Monday night will give us what we want and need. It will be a forum that we can contrast with the forum of last Sunday’s debate.

So far, I have dealt with but one of the many areas of government that need appraisal – the economy, clearly the most important of all to the electorate. There are many others though – too many to deal with here. Health, education, industrial relations, immigration, and global warming spring to mind. These too need to be addressed.

It is not just the content of the debates that need attention, it is the format.

The Sunday night format was awful. It was inappropriate on almost every count. First, I believe that if there is to be a journalist involved at all, moderator is the only role that might be appropriate. Journalists should not formulate the questions, or ask them. They should not presume to know the questions voters want answered.

For my part, I would prefer questions to be formulated by a panel familiar with the subject matter, and based on questions submitted by the voters. Well before the debate, the public should be invited to post questions on a website dedicated to the debate. These would then be aggregated into groups, and questions refined from them. This would not be difficult or time consuming.

The debate is not for the purpose of tripping up the leaders, or even testing their capacity to remember the details of their policies. It is not an exam. So why not send them the questions a few days in advance to give them the chance to prepare full, yet concise answers. We want to know what the policies really are, not how well the leaders remember them or even how well they articulate them in an off-the-cuff answer, certainly not how well they spin an answer off the top of their head.

A competent moderator should present the questions, which should also be displayed boldly on a screen behind the leaders, so they are visible to viewers throughout the answers. Each leader is given the same time to respond, and should be permitted to use visual aids such as graphs and graphics. The eye combined with the ear is better than the ear alone. The moderator should have the right to interrupt if the speaker is wandering off topic or avoiding the question, if he makes a contentious or contestable statement, if he reverts to motherhood statements or slogans, and if he spends too long criticising his opponent.

There should be opportunities for each leader to challenge the other’s assertions and ask for evidence.

Each debate should be confined to just one major topic, or a small group of related topics, such as, for example, health, aged care and disability. Too many topics in the one debate foster superficiality, as we saw during the first debate.

I do not believe community forums are suitable for such a debate between leaders. Those I have witnessed have been characterized by partisan questioning by audience ‘plants’, and stereotypical answers. Nor do I think the Q&A format, where the audience pose the questions, is suitable. While some Q&A sessions have been laudable (and entertaining), for a debate where in-depth probing of the leaders is crucial, this format is unlikely to achieve what voters need. And we certainly don’t want to be entertained. We want to be informed. The format for the Bowen/Hockey encounter on Q&A will be worthy of note. In particular, I will be looking to see how Tony Jones garners the questions, how he keeps the speakers on topic, the extent to which he interrupts, how appropriate those interruptions are, and how well the speakers inform the viewers about their policies and their costings.

In summary, I believe the best arrangement for these debates would be to divide the major issues into four or five main topics, invite the public to post online the questions they want addressed, have a panel of professionals in the subject refine the questions, send them to the speakers beforehand, have an accomplished moderator pose them and then monitor the leaders’ contributions, allowing interaction between them. There ought to be an hour-long debate on each major topic, or group of topics. I would favour having ministers and shadow ministers involved as well as the leaders. That would somewhat tone down the presidential tenor that now overwhelms this election campaign.

We need more debates, better information, more transparency, deeper insight, more honesty.

There it is folks. It may be pie in the sky.

What do you think?

If you decide to ‘Disseminate this post’, it will be sent to the following: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Julie Bishop, Chris Bowen, George Brandis, Mathias Cormann, Joe Hockey, Scott Morrison, Christopher Pyne, Andrew Robb, Kevin Rudd, Tony Smith, Warren Truss, Malcolm Turnbull and Penny Wong