Leaders’ debate: They looked more like puppets than PMs

Where was the former barrister who could hold forth in Parliament so well? Or the former union leader, whose stump speeches could rally the troops? Instead we got safe and stilted talking points.

It wasn’t the most scintillating of Sunday night television viewing, but at least last night’s election debate between the two major party leaders gave engaged voters their first close look at the two men who want to run the country.

Both leaders emerged relatively unscathed from the encounter, which will be a relief to their respective camps. A stumble even this far out from polling day can shape how the rest of the campaign is reported, while putting a huge dampener on the morale of campaign workers and party supporters.

Having said that, it’s difficult not to be disappointed with both leaders’ performances on the night.

Given the relatively high stakes involved, Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten had clearly been drilled by their strategists and minders to provide carefully scripted answers that ticked off the main talking points without divulging much else.

Having had any trace of spontaneity or candour stripped from their performances, both men ended up as marionette versions of themselves, awkwardly posturing on the stage with stilted voices and pantomime expressions.

There was no trace of the former barrister Turnbull, the most skilled and compelling orator in the Federal Parliament, or any sign of the former union leader Shorten, whose inspiring stump speeches could deftly rally the troops.

Even more disappointingly, the over-engineering of the leaders’ performances treated debate viewers to an hour-long display of contemporary journalism’s greatest frustration: the non sequitur interview, in which politicians answer every question with a totally unrelated set of talking points.

A question to Turnbull about disappointing progressive voters, for example, was met with an answer about his business background and the importance of company tax cuts. A query about trust was met with a similar homily.

Asked how Labor planned to pay for its health and education policies, Shorten similarly responded by framing the Government’s $48 billion program of tax cuts for an increasing number of small, medium and large businesses over 10 years as a “$50 billion giveaway to big business”.

And on the question whether he could be trusted given his role in the deposition of two prime ministers, Shorten deflected by listing the policies on which Labor could be trusted instead.

Regrettably, the debate format provided little time to challenge the leaders on this evasion tactic. Similar time constraints often apply in media interviews, forcing journalists to choose between covering a range of issues or chewing up precious airtime by insisting that a politician actually answer the question.

At least there was one interesting element that emerged from the debate for political junkies, and that was the evolution of the messaging being used by the respective leaders.

Turnbull not only mentioned his business background on a couple of occasions to bolster his economic credentials, but also referred to his modest upbringing to bring authenticity to his comments about the importance of education in creating opportunity for all Australians.

Whether by plan or accidental osmosis, Shorten appeared to start referring to Labor’s “positive policies” as “positive plans”, perhaps in recognition of the fact that voters respond well to the idea that their political leaders have a plan of action. Shorten’s adoption of the term is somewhat awkward, however, given Tony Abbott also promoted his “positive plans” as opposition leader in 2013.

Shorten also added “risky” to his campaign lexicon during the debate in an attempt to frame Turnbull’s company tax cuts as a “very expensive gamble”, and thereby undermine voter confidence in the PM as a superior economic manager.

In the post-debate mop-up, the leaders’ strategists will now be weighing up the value of any additional head-to-head encounters. Given Shorten showed more aptitude for the people’s forum, in which “real people” asked questions predominantly about Labor’s issues, it’s likely his camp will press for more of that kind of debate.

Turnbull’s camp may have assumed the more formal debate format at the National Press Club would have suited the PM more, but that wasn’t obvious on the night.

In reality, Shorten has very little to lose, whatever format is chosen for any similar events during the election campaign. Every time he shares a stage with the current PM, Shorten is elevated in the eyes of voters from Opposition leader to alternative prime minister.

The PM’s people know this, and likely would have preferred to reserve the right not to agree to another debate in case Shorten needed to be brought down a peg or two.

However, this option has become fraught since political commentator Peta Credlin unhelpfully suggested after the debate last night that the Turnbull camp should refuse any further encounters of this kind.

This leaves the PM exposed to making a choice that potentially benefits Abbott by affirming the views of the former PM’s key strategist, or one that potentially benefits Shorten by again elevating him to alternative PM status.

It’s an invidious choice, for sure, but one that Turnbull could still turn to his advantage – but only if he can work out how to be less wooden and more engaging.

That would require sticking less to the script, answering more questions directly and injecting at least some candour into his answers. By adopting this admittedly more risky strategy, Turnbull could rekindle at least some hope in those voters pining for The Real Malcolm to return.

This support could be critical if Turnbull is to avoid being saddled with a hung parliament after polling day.

Author: Drag0nista

Political columnist at The New Daily | Editor of Despatches & AusVotes 2019 | Author of On Merit, a book on the Liberals' *women problem*. Former Liberal staffer and industry lobbyist. Studying the entrails of federal politics since 1989.

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