Albanese must step up and debate the PM

When Labor leader Anthony Albanese appeared at the National Press Club in January, the final question of the day was asked by Laura Tingle, the press club’s president. She wanted to know whether he would commit to debating Prime Minister Scott Morrison during the election.

His answer could not have been more emphatic: “Every day, every week is fine … There has never been a prime minister who is so shy about having a debate … I am up for a debate on ABC, 7, 9, 10, Herald, West … Everyone can host one. I will turn up wherever they are.”

For a leader who has struggled to make an impression on voters, and has just spent a week at home in isolation with COVID-19, you would think Albanese would be true to his word. And you would think the opportunity to go head-to-head with the prime minister before a national audience to make the case for change would be hard to pass up.

Anthony Albanese and Scott Morrison during the first leaders’ debate in Brisbane.Credit:Jason Edwards

Apparently, that is not the case, at least so far. The Nine Network, along with The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, has put forward a proposal to host a debate on May 8 that would air during the usual 60 Minutes timeslot on Sunday night to ensure a large audience. Morrison says that’s fine by him, and he has also committed to a Channel Seven debate next week.

Albanese, despite his “every day, every week” rhetoric of the past, has yet to take up the challenge. On Friday, his first day out of isolation, the best he could offer was that while “I’m up for more debates … I’m not up for the prime minister deciding when, who, how that all occurs”. We are running out of time in this campaign, and it is essential that at least one debate between leaders happens on free-to-air television.

We would expect that this tension will be resolved in coming days and that Albanese will agree to at least one, probably two, more debates. The tedium of this ritual during election campaigns is wearing. The need for an independent debate commission to set the rules and the structure of leader debates has been obvious for decades – without it, parties will squabble to ensure any political advantage. After the third debate in the 2019 federal election campaign, Morrison and then Labor leader Bill Shorten publicly agreed to set up a commission that would avoid media companies bidding to host the two leaders.

Morrison now says that Labor rejected a commission, while Labor says the coalition’s negotiations were not made in good faith.

It may be that Albanese is still recovering from COVID-19, and he may prefer to hold one debate on the national broadcaster, the ABC. But his reticence to date is hard to understand when you consider that Sky News declared Albanese the winner of the first debate after responses from the 100 undecided voters found that 40 per cent supported him while 35 per cent backed Morrison, with the rest not convinced either way.

For decades, these types of debates have given the public the opportunity, outside of parliament, to judge how well leaders can match up against each other and articulate their policy platform. Some have been moderated by journalists only and some included questions from undecided voters in the audience. Both have merit. While some have been more compelling than others, their format ensures that they are free of the many distractions that are often a feature of a media press conference, and political fudging can be challenged by their opposition or moderators.

There appears to be no shortage of interest, even at a local level. On Thursday, a debate of the candidates running in Goldstein, which includes Liberal incumbent Tim Wilson and prominent independent candidate Zoe Daniel, was held before a packed Brighton Town Hall. It was reported to have been a fiery but civilised affair, in which candidates had the chance to put forward their positions.

So much of political campaigning in the modern era is about sound bites and picture opportunities. Controlling the message is considered an essential, and questions can be avoided by non-answers or by changing the topic. While a leader debate is not immune from political deflection, the pared-back format ensures that the focus is completely on their policies and ideas and how well they articulate them.

Albanese needs to agree to further debates as soon as possible to make his case for change, to put his policies and ideas under the spotlight of public scrutiny. On May 21, voters will decide on who will lead this nation for another three years. They should make that decision after being given every opportunity to hear what the parties have to offer. The debates are an essential part of that democratic process.

Gay Alcorn sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive her Note from the Editor.

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