Why is it so hard to have an actual leaders’ debate?

How pathetic is it that neither major party can agree to a bloody debate? It was pathetic when Julia Gillard was refusing to have more than one – particularly one after the big parties’ ridiculously and offensively late campaign launches. (There’s a public-funding rort for incumbents that should be shut down.) It was pathetic when Tony Abbott refused, then agreed but only if it was five minutes with a tea break. And naturally Abbott wants to replace a neutral debate with a pile-on in a Liberal electorate where he can be lauded by his supporters in a Prime Ministerial fashion and Gillard can be booed and hissed, and Labor thinks why the hell should we fold again when our request is the reasonable neutral one and theirs is ridiculous…

Who here was sent by their local party to run lines that would sound dodgy coming out of the mouth of the leader they support?

The point is that neither party views a debate as something they owe the people of Australia – they view it purely through the prism of whether it’s more or less likely to hurt or benefit their campaign as opposed to the other side. So as the polls change, and their position changes, they end up being ridiculous hypocrites refusing, then calling for, or calling for, then refusing some kind of “debate”.

And I put the word “debate” in quotes because the formats we get are stupid. I don’t care what journalists want to ask – they can do that in interviews – or what smears the parties can organise to harrangue their opponents from an audience of “voters” (which is fundamentally dishonest, as it’s taking a party line and trying to give it credibility by putting it in the mouth of someone we’ve never heard of, pretending it’s ONE OF US) – I want to see them debate each other.

Here’s a neutral format which takes the other elements out and puts it all down to the quality of the leaders’ arguments. I call it “an actual debate”:

  • The leaders of any party that won more than 10%* of the vote in the previous election are invited to participate.
  • There are between five and ten rounds, the number divisible by the number of parties participating.
  • The incumbent goes first on the first round, and picks a topic of their choosing (eg Health).
  • The incumbent speaks on that topic; then each of the other parties responds for a limited time, say three minutes. (A,B,C,D,E)
  • Then each party gets a two minute reply, in the same order. (A,B,C,D,E)
  • Then the second party picks a topic of their choosing (eg the economy), and the same thing happens again, in the same order, with the incumbent this time going last. (B,C,D,E,A)
  • And so on until all the rounds are complete. (C,D,E,A,B etc)
  • Then each party gets two minutes to sum up their election pitch. Then its over.

The only involvement of the moderator would be enforcing agreed rules – eg time limits, no physical violence – and the rest would be up to the actual participants. The people who have previously won at least public support in being elected to parliament, rather than journalists or cranks.

It’s hardly a revolutionary idea. The discussion being between the participants, not third parties, is what separates a debate from an inquisition. And yet we seem to have accepted a system where it matters who the moderator is, or what questions the unelected hacks might think are important.

Why wouldn’t we, the people who’ve voted for and are going to elect at least some of these people, demand better? Why should we sit back and cop the utter contempt with which they, and the self-interested media organisations who work with them, continually treat us in these campaigns? Any party too gutless to participate in a fair and neutral debate like the above should be mocked and derided as the unfit-for-public-office cowards they are.

Meanwhile, as to this election – Bob Brown should just show up at all the proposed venues and times and offer to take on whoever’s there.

*I’m picking 10% as it limits the forum to ten participants at maximum in theory, and in reality less than five.

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