The newspaper headline screams: ‘ANGRY CLASHES IN TV DEBATE ON ELECTIONS’.
This headline isn’t talking about Sunday’s televised debate between John Howard and Mark Latham. It comes from 1958, and describes the first ever television election debate between Robert Menzies, HV Evatt and senior politicians. Another newspaper summed it up as: ‘LEADERS ‘LIVELY’ IN NATION’S FIRST TV POLL DUEL’.
Forty-six years later, the 2004 version could hardly be described as ‘angry’ (despite the Channel Nine promo which advertised the event as some sort of gladiatorial contest full of biffo). Some viewers have questioned whether it was even ‘lively’. Others have wondered aloud in newspaper columns, letters-to-the-editor and talkback calls, whether it was even a debate.
The dictionary defines debate as ‘dispute about, discuss, engage in (formal) argument or discussion’. Discussion means having a conversation. In an election campaign, the main conversation that is supposed to be going on is the one between voters and political candidates.
In 1958, the televised debate was a novelty. The real crux of the campaign involved Menzies and Evatt traveling the country meeting voters in halls, holding public meetings and giving policy speeches. They were backed up by a swathe of candidates doing the same, and by small armies of party members out spreading the word on street corners and at railway stations.
Bearing this in mind, there were was one comment from the 2004 televised debate that stood out, and it didn’t come from either John Howard or Mark Latham.
It came from moderator and Canberra political heavyweight Laurie Oakes. At the beginning of the broadcast he announced: ‘The ground rules for the debate have been set by the two leaders …’
Oakes’ comment drew attention to the fact that this debate was organised to serve the interests of the two major party leaders; not the public interest.
Instead of debate about specific policies, the really hard arguments were about the timing, format and style of the debate – and these had already been fought and won before either leader stepped up to the podium. Many viewers had already read about the machinations behind the scenes, whether there’d be one debate or more, whether voters would be included or not, whether the leaders would sit or stand, what size the lecterns would be, whether the ‘worm’ would be used.
After all that haggling and collusion was over, we ended up with a rigid format, tight control over the process and participants, severe time limits for speech and the anomaly of a debate which comes before the campaign launches and before many of the major policies (which could be debated) have been released. Latham’s call for a debate which included questions from voters was rejected.
Perhaps it was appropriate that the debate included a panel of journalists – because the conversation taking place in Australia’s current election campaign is really one between politicians and the media, not between politicians and voters. The face-to-face contact that was so much a part of campaigning by Evatt and Menzies has been replaced by an intense focus on media appearances.
In modern election campaigns, the televised debate is now one of the few remaining ‘set-piece’ campaign events, along with the major parties’ campaign launches (now a misnomer, because the ‘launches’ come in the middle or near the end of the campaigns, instead of at the beginning).
The televised debate is a potentially valuable political forum. It’s one hour totally devoted to political discussion on prime time commercial television, without any interruption from advertising.
The problem is that the discussion occurs in a very stilted, stage-managed fashion. Viewers know it, and are switching channels accordingly.
In the 1984 federal election campaign, a massive 60 per cent of the viewing audience tuned in to watch Bob Hawke and Andrew Peacock. The figures so far suggest this year it’s dropped to 25 per cent, and more viewers watched Australian Idol instead. With its ‘reality’ tv format where viewers can influence the contest and determine the winner by SMS voting, it’s tempting to conclude that Australian Idol appealed because it offers two things the political debate (and modern Australian politics) did not: authenticity and interactivity.