After three weeks on the trail, we’re still five weeks – the length of a normal election campaign! – away from the polls and already the fatigue is starting to creep into the campaign and the coverage. Part of that fatigue has been down to the fact that with such a long way to go, the opposition has held firm and refused to release their policy platforms ahead of schedule to avoid giving the government an advantage (and y’know, running out of things to talk about). The problem is that without a clear picture and only a vague outline of their proposals, we’re stuck in a stalemate, where the debate remains stalled on the budget and who has the right economic priorities.
So coming into last night’s debate, there was some promise that a panel of some of Australia’s sharpest political journalists would be able to elicit some real truths and telling answers out of Malcolm and Bill. Alas, not even the great Laura Tingle could cut through what was easily the most lacklustre hour of the campaign thus far, which may say more about how fast, loose, and gaffe-ridden the first three weeks have been.
But still, democracy doesn’t sleep, even when all participants are trying their hardest to create the debate equivalent of Rohypnol. And like the countless students shovelling No Doz and Red Bull at their desks right now cramming for exams, I fixed my eyes to my screen, resolved to see this thing through to the bitter end, and tried not to think too hard about the umpteen things that would be more exciting than watching this snoozefest.
The National Press Club of Australia in Canberra, well known to ABC24 junkies as that place where politicians and policy wonks gives luncheon speeches in the afternoons to a who’s who of the Australian journalistic corps. You can read some highfalutin self-endorsement on the club’s page here.
WAIT, SO WHERE ARE THE UNDECIDED VOTERS?
What, you thought these events were all electorate cross-sections and extradition laws? No, this time around we’re doing this by the book with the head of the ABC’s Political Editor Chris Uhlmann as moderator. He’s joined by fellow journalists, the Australian Financial Review’s Laura Tingle, the Herald Sun’s Ellen Whinnett, and The West Australian’s Andrew Probyn. All four of these people are fairly prominent in press conferences asking pointed questions so theoretically they’ll be able to navigate the spin.
WHAT HAPPENED IN THE LEAD UP TO THE DEBATE?
In what can only be seen as an homage to the 10th anniversary of Muse’s commercial breakout, this week was all about Black Holes and Revelations.
(As always, Hew Parkinson of ABC’s Insiders can do more with four minutes than I can say with 4000 words, and this time is no different).
This week was probably the Coalition’s best week, which is really more of a statement on how disastrous the first two went than a ringing endorsement of their campaigning. Scott Morrison tried his hardest to assume Peter Dutton’s mantle as the most farcical politician of the week by pushing hard on the claim that Labor has a $67bn spending “black hole”, holding a press conference with Finance Minster Mathias Cormann with a series of big, scary looking charts with that number prominently displayed. Unfortunately, journalists in this country aren’t easily distracted by colourful charts and almost immediately the maths started to wilt under scrutiny when it was pointed out they’d misrepresented Labor’s foreign aid spending commitments at $19bn, when in fact they’d only promised to increase the budget by $244 million. As one journo so aptly put it to the Treasurer, “so there may be a black hole in the black hole then”. Morrison would go on to essentially admit that there wasn’t much veracity in the $67bn figure but it had been a tactic to “flush out” the opposition, and that it was up to Labor to show how much they really were going to spend and the media to actually keep track of the figures. The ends justify the means!
And yet, despite what should probably have been a decisive failure for the Coalition, the tactic seemed to work. Perhaps feeling himself a little too much, coming off a pretty strong start to this campaign, Shorten got a little too loose with his jokes at a community event by telling the “national media” to “put that on the spend-o-meter”. Which might seem fairly innocuous but when your opponent is hellbent on painting you as the profligate party, it’s a needless line that gives the Coalition excellent ammo. By the end of the week, Labor had abandoned support for the $4.5bn schoolkids bonus, a backflip given Shorten had reaffirmed his support for the scheme in recent months. It left them open to attacks about what else they would backflip on, and basically gifted Morrison a ‘get out of jail free card’.
Also, former Channel V and Australian Idol host James Mathison is running as an independent against Tony Abbott. There’s been a lot happening.
WHO WON THE 2016 ‘Jaymes Diaz Memorial Trophy for Worst Obscure Candidate Media Screw Up’ AWARD?
I can’t move on to the actual debate without first awarding this inglorious honour to Liberal candidate Chris Jermyn, who decided to crash a Shorten media event at a health centre in the electorate of McEwan, which is currently held by Labor MP Rob Mitchell by 0.2%. Certainly in play, make sense to take the initiative and go on the offensive with an ambush. After setting out the front of the centre, he even got to shake Bill’s hand, though he was subjected to Shorten’s quip that at least he was meeting one leader this election.
Where it went catastrophically wrong was when, not unlike Morrison’s performance earlier in the week, he started to get asked questions. Specifically, he seemed unable to answer questions about the Government’s health policy, despite being asked several times to outline their plan, and was unable to offer a response on the Government’s freeze on Medicare rebates other than “the Government’s position is very clear”. So clear that he obviously didn’t need to outline them. After Shorten referenced the apparent fact that he did not know his own party’s policies during his speech, he abruptly left the event before it was over, bizarrely leaving a supporter holding the bag and having to attempt to hold his own press conference. When he was tracked down a few streets away after fleeing the scene, he proclaimed “This is why I hate journalists” and drove off.
Thank you Chris, people like you make this all worthwhile.
WHERE IN THE WORLD WAS RICHARD DI NATALE?
Not at this debate, again! They may have needed more than an hour with three participants but it sure would have made it a livelier affair. He did live tweet the debate so if you wanted to get an idea for how he would have answered the questions, take a gander at his Twitter. He’s also on tonight’s Q&A.
Bill went back to tradition for this one and selected what I initially thought was a plain on brand Labor red but in fact has a slight, almost imperceptible diagonal dot pattern. Malc long career in the world of business really came to the fore in this department, completely screwing with Shorten by going with a salmon orange that was both stylish and a return to the orange spectrum dominating the campaign thus far. He’s taking it back!
Shorten won the toss and sent Turnbull in to bat first. And Malcolm sort of tried to not say any of the lines we’ve all grown sick of hearing repeated ad nauseam, but in electing to not say “there’s never been a more exciting time to be Australian”, he ended up going on a tangent about how the world has changed in 40 years, China’s economic development, and so on. Unfortunately (for us), maybe spooked by the warning bell, he ended up on “more jobs and more growth” so really, you’ve heard it all before.
On the other hand, Shorten tried to keep up with the respectful tone he’s been at pains to present in these events by looking straight down the camera and declaring that “Tonight I would like to speak directly to the Australian people.” Remember when a certain Communications Minister pulled that one during Q&A last year addressing Indonesia on the Bali Nine duo? He even tried to set a clear agenda for the night with three priorities: rigid budget measures, nation building infrastructure, and education. But in a sign of what was to come all night, he tried to fit the kitchen sink into the back end of the address with a list of things to TRUST LABOR on, before throwing a comparison to Reagan and Thatcher towards Turnbull and his budget.
SO YOU SEEM TO NOT REALLY BE THAT EAGER TO TALK ABOUT THE DEBATE, DID ANYTHING ACTUALLY HAPPEN.
This debate was, as far as political debates go, pretty bad. First off, the panel only managed to get off seven questions during the hour, which when you get right down to it just isn’t a lot. And yet despite allowing an adequate amount of time to answer these questions, not much was actually said. Some of the questions just straight up weren’t answered – which you would expect to a degree but again, with only seven questions all night, that’s not a lot to actually answer. I don’t think there was anything new introduced for the entire event, and that meant rehashing the same content in debate format that we’ve been hearing for the last three weeks.
It was, as one Twitter user described it, two press conference happening simultaneously. Both Tingle and Probyn tried to follow up questions on budget repair and resettling asylum seekers after each leader went into lengthy monologues that didn’t actually answer the question, only to receive vague clarifications for their efforts. Shorten was determined to swing hard, throwing a seemingly endless supply of one-liners at Turnbull, but he struggled to articulate Labor’s polices clearly enough to make the attacks seem more than just cheap rhetoric. Malcolm improved significantly in this format compared to last time, but admittedly the questions did really suit his and the Coalition’s strong points. He managed to promote a more positive tone on the budget, but he fell back time and again to talking about and selling himself as a man from the ‘real world’ who understands ‘how businesses operate’ and not the actual policies. He did manage to handle the question on climate change pretty adeptly, making it clear that he does believe that it’s a real thing and taking credit for “my government” signing the Paris Accords – though he maybe went a bit far saying “President Obama thanked me personally”. The last 20 minutes devolved into a mudslinging match, with Shorten firing a “shame on you” at Turnbull about claims that people smugglers wanted Labor to win the election as a marketing ploy to refugees. It became more or less the sort of attacks you’ll soon be bombarded with when the smear campaigns really kick into gear closer to the election.
MOMENT OF THE NIGHT
Laura Tingle’s getting too old for this shit.
THE KEY TAKEAWAY
I’d be hesitant to say either man won last night, because how many people actually endured that whole thing? With no serious engagement and the spewing of talking points that led nowhere, there were no winners, only survivors. If you lean Liberal, you’d give it to Malcolm. If you like Labor, you’d probably give it to Bill. Angus Campbell’s theory of partisan identification remains as true today as it did in 1960. But objectively speaking, I think Malcolm gets the points decision here. He made as much of the hour about him as he could, and anytime it descends into a choice between personalities, Turnbull has the advantage. Shorten tried really hard to keep jabbing and hooking all debate, but he probably overpunched with his use of one-liners so that when he did land something good (like the line Mr Turnbull “wants to give banks a tax cut – I want to give them a Royal Commission”), they lacked the necessary power behind the shot to truly injure. Shorten tried to introduce too many elements – essentially Labor’s entire platform into the debate – instead of picking his areas and staying on message. And that’s where Turnbull deserves credit; he showed excellent message discipline and never let himself get backed into a corner.
All in all though, it was about as competitive a display as Bernard Tomic facing match point in Madrid. If this was our best, it was an embarrassment to the country.
Words by Wade McCagh