After watching the 12 Republican Party and 9 Democratic Party US Presidential Nominee debates (and there’s another one potentially on the table sometime this month) that have taken place since August last year for an election that won’t take place until November this year, I am relieved that even though this Australian federal election campaign will be unusually long at 8 weeks, it will be mercifully succinct by comparison.

But I am grateful, nay, ecstatic, that we’ll get at least two and possibly more of these Australian leaders’ debates. Because political debates are all about projecting and reinforcing the myths and self-image of the nations they take place in. And whereas the United States has the slick production and pomposity of some sort of nightmarish gameshow/gladiatorial death match crossover, Australia goes straight for the community RSLs, where amongst the pokies and the meat raffle (they literally announced the winner of the meat raffle during the first question – applause was audible) a small group of undecided Aussies get in a room with the PM and the Opposition Leader to ask unscripted questions about everything from Bulk Billing to Bosnian Extradition Requests.

Of course, with the most hyped AFL game of the season, a surprisingly entertaining game of Rugby League, and the 1st Semi Final of Eurovision all happening at the same time, there’s every possibility absolutely no one but the talking heads of Sky News were watching. Fear not, dear reader, because like some masochistic political Atlas, I took this burden upon my shoulders so you could enjoy your Friday night and still sound like you’re on top of what happened this week.

 

THE VENUE

The Windsor RSL, in Western Sydney, where 1 in 11 Australians live. Windsor is in the seat of Macquarie, held by Liberal Louise Markus since 2010. Her car was vandalised during the debate by protesters against the construction of a new airport.

Leaders debate - the venue

WHAT DO THE GOOD PEOPLE OF WINDSOR CARE ABOUT?

Well, some of them clearly care a lot about that airport, but the good people standing outside with placards speak for themselves.

On a broader scale, ABC’s Vote Compass identified the top three issues for NSW voters: education, the economy and healthcare.

 

WHAT HAPPENED IN THE LEAD IN TO THE DEBATE?

Quite a bit actually. Here’s the quick video recap.

In short, both major parties were focused on the budget. Bill Shorten and Labor came out swinging against the proposed business tax cut and negative gearing, while Malcolm Turnbull and the Coalition set about selling their ‘economic plan’ for ‘jobs and growth’. Both sides also categorically ruled out forming a power-sharing arrangement with the Greens.

Speaking of the Greens, where the heck is Richard Di Natale?

Not at this debate, that’s for sure. Labor and the Coalition don’t want to be seen anywhere near the Greens at the risk of legitimising them as a political force. Di Natale has, like almost every team in any sort of contest for the last month, declared themselves “the Leicester City of Australian politics”. We’re yet to see if Di Natale can be the Claudio Ranieri of Australian politics.

 

TIE WATCH

Bill elected to go with an understated solid orange selection, spicing things up from Labor’s traditional red. Unfortunately, both Malcolm and Treasurer Scott Morrison brought out orange ties during the election announcement on Sunday so it felt it had already been done, or that he was trying to subliminally look like the PM. Malcolm went with traditional Liberal blue, albeit with a light blue geometric pattern, because Malcolm’s a maverick individual with his own style and that’s sort of his entire appeal.  Point to Turnbull.

 

OPENING STATEMENTS

Malcolm used his opening address to talk about… you guessed it, “jobs and growth”.

And he has a plan. An economic plan! (Also known as the Budget.)

Shorten used his opening address to talk about Labor’s “positive plans”, attempting to associate the government with negatives. Again, the focus points were all from Labor’s budget reply.

A night of debating the big issues, centred around the Budget and the economy, which we know from polling are the biggest of the big issues! The punters will no doubt be eager to hear what these two have to say.

 

MOMENT OF THE NIGHT

It happened about halfway through the debate, after a question from a man named Brian about each party’s policy on the banking sector, specifically regarding lowering interest rates after RBA cash rate cuts. Turnbull went first and emphasised in classic neoliberal fashion the importance of competition in the banking sector to drive better product options for consumers. Shorten, using the recent CommInsure scandal as a pretext, called once again for a Royal Commission into the banking sector.

Turnbull attempted to counter this by asserting that Shorten wanted to put these banks “in the dock” like they were “criminals”. Unfortunately, while Malcolm may have found the idea that bankers could be seen as criminals as ridiculous (perhaps because he was one once upon a time), the crowd had no issue with that image and a spontaneous cheer at the idea took the wind right out of his sails.

And after watching Turnbull back himself into a corner, Shorten seized his opportunity and threw his best one-two haymaker combination of the night. Pouncing on Turnbull’s dismissal of the idea of a Royal Commission as a waste of time and money that only ends with “a report”, Shorten immediately asked why the government felt a Royal Commission into Trade Unions was therefore appropriate. And after Turnbull mentioned that he’d given a very tough warning to bankers at a Westpac party recently, Shorten pounced again saying “I’m sure they went home and changed their practices after a lecture from you.”

 

MOST RANDOM MOMENT OF THE NIGHT

In between meaty questions on privatisation and superannuation reform, a woman named Gina asked a question about Bosnian extradition laws. Both leaders mentioned the need to uphold extradition laws and diplomatic relations while making sure to point out the many various people originating from former Yugoslavia in their electorates. It was… a bit weird.

If nothing else, it proved the questions weren’t scripted or screened.

 

DID ANYTHING NEW COME UP DURING THE DEBATE?

Not much. Shorten avoided saying anything substantial about policy areas that Labor have not formally launched yet. The only real new info of the night came from Turnbull announcing that an agreement to continue bulk billing for pathology has been reached.

 

AUDIENCE VERDICT

Out of an audience of 100 undecided voters, 42 said they’re more like to vote for Shorten after the debate, while 29 said they’re more likely to vote for Turnbull. 29 remained undecided.

 

KEY TAKEAWAY

The key takeaway from this debate was that Malcolm Turnbull is an eloquent speaker but he has to learn to read his audience better. Whether it was rushing to the defence of real estate agents over Labor’s negative gearing proposals or the bankers in the previously mentioned gaffe, or just seeming to try a little too hard to pander to working class Australia (beginning one answer with “Thank God for the sparkies”), he came across as aloof and unable to connect with the small audience in front of him. It’s entirely possible that he was focused on making sure his message stayed on point to the wider television audience but it made him look out of touch and highlighted that while he can make an excellent speech, he has some work to do when it comes to engaging an audience and responding to live questions.

Meanwhile, it’s clear that the Shorten-Albanese Labor leadership campaign after the 2013 election has paid off for Shorten in the long run. He showed quiet confidence and poise speaking to the crowd and engaging with the questioners. While the questions naturally favoured Labor’s strong suits, he stayed on message, had several strong moments and rarely stumbled. The cherry on top came when he voluntarily brought up TURC in order to score a decisive point. A better debater could have used that to hammer Shorten but Turnbull was too busy trying to bail himself out of his misstep on the banks. It shows a self-confidence, perhaps even a little swagger, from Shorten that must be quietly relieving to Labor supporters, that he’s not afraid of taking the fight to Turnbull and get into a good old fashion street brawl. And that’s precisely what Labor will need to do if they’re to have any chance in this election: keep landing blows to the Government’s platform and make it a real fight.

Unfortunately for Shorten, practically no one was watching. In the absence of a decisive knockout blow, it’s likely no one will remember this debate a fortnight further into this campaign. Even Christopher Pyne knew he could skip this one.

So it’s a slight victory for Bill – but there’s still a long way to go…

Also, for what it’s worth, 10th placed Belgium was my pick of this year’s Eurovision, but any time something as ridiculous as Eurovision becomes even more of a geopolitical spectacle than it already is, I can get behind that. So congratulations Ukraine.

 

Words by Wade McCagh