Why aren’t we watching political debates?

Here’s a trick question. Just past the halfway mark of the eight-week federal election campaign, how many leaders’ debates have taken place, or been scheduled, before the July 2 polling day?

Election debates in Australia are a fickle subject. Unlike the USA we don’t have a special not-for-profit committee – Commission of Presidential Debates – to establish the rules in advance. Rather, Australia has a more ad hoc approach. The number of debates, their format, the media host, physical location and even the media platform are all up for negotiation between the parties and the media during the campaign.

This process started quickly in 2016 with the first of the leaders’ debates between Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbul,l and Opposition leader, Bill Shorten, taking place in the marginal NSW liberal-held seat of Macquarie in week one. Unfortunately, most Australians missed it. The people’s forum at Windsor RSL averaged 54,000 viewers. No surprises really given that it was only six days into the marathon campaign, and the debate was locked behind Sky News’ television paywall; although it was streamed online for free and this helped boost numbers a little. The 100 undecided voters in the RSL declared Shorten the victor, 42:29.

The second debate, at the end of week four, was a more traditional affair at Canberra’s National Press Club and televised by the national broadcaster. The format consisted of a panel of three journalists asking questions following a five-minute opening address by each of the leaders. From a US Presidential debating perspective, it was more what Alan Schroeder would call a “face-to-face discussion” or what Jeffery Auer would label as a “counterfeit debate” with no real engagement between the leaders.

This ‘debate’ also lacked the bells and whistles that commercial television brings to these occasions such as the 1990s Australian invention of the ‘worm’. The on-screen wiggly line tracks viewers’ reactions to the debaters in real time, and typically shows that voters don’t like negativity and attack. But, at this second talkfest, there was neither audience interaction using a worm, nor any cut through Duncan Storrer-styled questions from the floor.

On the positive side, the commercial television networks’ penchant for jazzed up infographics was lacking, as was the tranche of ads promoting the debate that invariably depict the political leaders as fighters in their respective red and blue corners of the political boxing ring.

Even so, the ABC attracted a respectable audience of 875,000. But not for long. Within three minutes into the broadcast it shed 150,000 viewers. At one point, the audience plummeted to 570,000. In comparison, the 2010 debate between Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott attracted an average of 3 million viewers and was broadcast on three free-to-air TV networks in 2010. However, it was shifted to an earlier time slot to avoid a clash with the Masterchef final, which nearly 4 million Australians watched.

Political pundits and social media users attacked the 2016 ABC debate for being boring, stilted and the leaders’ for failing to answer the journalists’ questions. Some on Snapchat used the hour to entertain their followers, drawing various adornments on the leaders’ heads. There was no declared winner.

Next was the debate that wasn’t. This one-sided event in week five of the campaign was staged at the Bronco’s League Club in Brisbane, hosted jointly by Sky News and The Courier Mail. Shorten showed up but without an opponent, and so Sky’s political editor David Speers became a proxy for Turnbull according to Twitter chatter on #peoplesforum. Meanwhile Turnbull chose a much larger and traditional audience and went head-to-head with Leigh Sales on ABC’s 7.30.

Could anyone blame Turnbull for shirking it? Not if we look at election debate audience figures over time. The Australian Electoral Study has been asking Australians since 1990 if they watch the leaders’ debate. That study finds the high tide mark was Prime Minister Paul Keating against John Hewson. Almost three out of four people tuned in to watch Keating demolish Hewson, arguably costing the Liberal leader the ‘unloseable’ election. Since then, the audience trend has been southward. In 2013 only one in three respondents said they tuned in to Channel Seven to watch Tony Abbott ask Kevin Rudd: ‘Does this guy ever shut up?’

Figure 1: The steady decline of Australian viewers watching televised election debates

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Source: Ian McAllister and Sarah M. Cameron. (2014). Trends in Australian Political Opinion: Results from the Australian Election Study, 1987-2013. Canberra: Australian National University

These figures are a far cry from the experiences of the US and Britain. From 1960 to 2012 each US Presidential debate has averaged a television audience of 56.3 million. Called the rhetorical Superbowl, the televised debate was a 1960 invention. Then, television was king and a young Presidential hopeful, John F Kennedy, was mastering the make-up, cameras, lighting and sound bite to win against President Richard Nixon. Almost 70 million Americans switched on for the first of three debates making it the largest political audience in US history.

Fifty years later, Britain held its first televised debate in 2010. It was a three-pronged affair between political leaders David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg. It attracted 9.4 million viewers, beating long-running soap operas Coronation Street and EastEnders. The UK debate was the most watched program of the day. Clegg, the winner according to polls, dramatically increased his profile as the Liberal Democrats’ leader and went on to form a Coalition government with Cameron.

So, if Australian televised election debate audiences are declining, why run them? Research suggests a few good reasons. One is to increase public interest in the election campaign. US scholars have shown that the gap in political knowledge between the least and most educated voters in America gets smaller after a televised debate. This is further helped by news outlets running stories either side of the debates and focusing on the pre-determined themes.

Televised debates can help voters better get to know the candidates and their policy priorities. But they can also shape how we judge their trustworthiness, likeability and competence. Australian researcher Philip Senior has found that election debate effects are modest but can influence undecided voters who will ponder shifting their vote to the debate winner. Most international studies find that the further the debate is from the election, the less impact it will have on voters’ polling day choices. Election debates are also thought to reinforce partisan positions if it is perceived that the voter’s preferred candidate has won the debate. Interestingly, Senior found Australian partisan voters who perceive their leader to have lost the debate will consider not voting for the party. Of course, winners of debates can still lose elections, but Senior argues probably not by as much as they might otherwise.

From a media perspective, debates serve the media’s civic function by helping to inform voters about policies. They add theatre to politics and provide entertainment and, in other countries, are ratings winners for television networks.

From the politicians’ and party viewpoint, debates serve the underdog by giving the candidate who is behind in the polls the same stage space and time as their opponent. This means that the stronger candidate might say ‘no’ to a televised debate – as was the case with Bob Hawke in 1987 against John Howard. If they agree to debate their party would prefer it to be a long way from election day so that any mistakes might be forgotten.

That said, Australia’s political leaders have agreed to face off again, this time online, at a date to be set. Facebook Live and News Corps’ news.com.au will host. It’s not the first time a political debate was broadcast via Facebook and a News Corp outlet. The 2015 primary Republican debate was co-hosted with Fox News and was reportedly seen by 24 million views and generated more than 20 million Facebook posts, comments, and likes.

Turnbull said he wants to move the debate into the digital era of smart phones and social media. With more than 11 million Australians checking Facebook each day, mostly through their mobile phones, the debate has the potential to reach audiences not seen before in Australia.

So, if your answer to the opening question was three and a half, you score full points and earn the title of political pundit.

Andrea Carson is Lecturer, Media and Politics at the University of Melbourne