Channel 9 is copping a severe backlash for its handling of the leaders’ debate but one moment in particular showed the real culprits.
There has been a severe backlash against Channel 9 for its choice of format and hosts for last night’s ill-tempered election debate, some of it deserved.
But we should not lose sight of who’s ultimately to blame for the trainwreck: Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese. These two men reckon they’re serious enough to be prime minister for the next three years, yet most high school debaters comport themselves with more maturity.
Believe it or not we have seen worse political debates in recent years, and one in particular springs to mind: the first contest between US presidential candidates Donald Trump and Joe Biden in 2020.
On that occasion, Mr Trump showed up with a plan to hector and interrupt Mr Biden essentially non-stop, apparently believing he could bully his opponent into suffering a campaign-dooming mental stumble.
The result was an unedifying farce. Moderator Chris Wallace – a respected political journalist with years of experience handling hostile politicians – ended up practically begging Mr Trump to be quiet, without success. “Will you shut up, man?” Mr Biden snapped at one point.
Last night wasn’t quite on that level. It was less malicious, more hapless. But, like Wallace, moderator Sarah Abo found herself in a position where there was little she could do to rein in the two candidates.
We can blame Nine for designing a format that encouraged Mr Morrison and Mr Albanese to interject and talk over each other. That criticism shouldn’t extend to Abo.
The moderators in these debates don’t have the power to mute the candidates’ microphones. If Mr Morrison and Mr Albanese decide they’re just not going to stop talking, then that’s that. It is their fault, not hers.
The first sign of real trouble came with a polite but firm observation that “we have given you both latitude”, which is moderator-speak for “kindly shut up”.
The interjections proceeded to bubble away at a level one might call above average, but not too egregious, for some time. They got markedly worse during the segment in which Mr Morrison and Mr Albanese got to ask each other questions.
Negative gearing, the minimum wage, Labor’s new homebuyer scheme – each of these subjects descended into pointless crosstalk.
And then things went completely off the rails. It happened when one of the journalists, Chris Uhlmann, asked the Prime Minister about his “red line” in the Pacific.
“You have drawn a red line on any Chinese military bases in the Solomon Islands. What does that mean?” he asked.
“It means that is something Australia believes would be completely against our national interest. And we also believe it will be against the Solomon Islands’ national interest,” said Mr Morrison.
“But you do have to enforce this in some way. Are you saying you would be prepared, for example, to try and blockade any attempt to build a military base in the Solomon Islands?” Uhlmann pressed.
“I think it would be very unwise for any government to speculate around these issues,” the PM said.
“What is the point of talking about a red line if we don’t know what you mean by it?”
And so it continued, until Mr Albanese got involved, and the two candidates started shouting over each other – and Abo.
“Excuse me. I think we’re getting more questions between the two of you than from our panel,” she told them.
“This is a very important point,” Mr Morrison said, barely turning towards her and waving her off with a lazy flick of his hand. The crosstalk resumed.
“Mr Morrison and Mr Albanese, this is enough. We do need to move on,” Abo insisted.
They both ignored her.
“You all agreed to the rules this evening,” she said.
Uhlmann eventually managed to get a fresh question in. Thirty seconds later, the two leaders were back at it.
“How often has (Labor deputy leader) Richard Marles met with the Chinese ambassador in Australia?” Mr Morrison asked.
“That is just an outrageous slur,” Mr Albanese erupted.
“He runs his speeches past the Chinese government,” the PM claimed.
Ms Abo jumped in to end another round of useless bickering.
“We have a question. Mr Albanese we have given you more than enough time. The pair of you have had more than enough time,” she said.
“You agreed to these rules before coming on the program tonight.”
That’s the point, really. The rules may not have been designed all that well, but they were there, and both leaders chose to ignore them. It hardly speaks well of either man.
There were plenty of soul-sapping moments unrelated to the candidates’ bad manners, of course: disingenuous answers, dodging of questions and other garden variety offences.
“Have you seen any corruption on your side of politics in your time, and what did you do about it?” David Crowe asked the Prime Minister at one point.
“No, I haven’t,” said Mr Morrison.
Scott Morrison has been in parliament since 2007. He was a state director of the Liberal Party before that. In all that time, he says, he has observed nary a hint of corruption.
One might conclude he hasn’t been looking very hard.
“This week you claimed you were not given the opportunity to detail a policy you clearly did not know. Wasn’t that a lie?” Uhlmann asked Mr Albanese, referring to his failure to recall his six-point plan for the NDIS.
“I do know the policy,” Mr Albanese protested.
“At the time, you clearly did not know it,” Uhlmann shot back.
“Your claim against the Prime Minister is that he routinely lies. So, did you know the policy at the time? And when you said you weren’t given an opportunity, wasn’t that a lie?”
“No it wasn’t. The NDIS is about people. That was what my response was, making sure that people are put back at the centre of the NDIS,” Mr Albanese said.
“The question of the NDIS isn’t about a number of points. What it is about is how do you fix the NDIS.”
I know, dear readers, that many of you share the Labor leader’s contempt for this line of questioning. A substantive discussion of each side’s NDIS policies would probably have been more useful. But Mr Albanese just wasn’t being honest.
The NDIS issue isn’t about a number of points, he said. It’s about how you fix the NDIS, he said. The thing is, when the answer to “how do you fix the NDIS” is “oh we have this super great six-point plan”, it actually is about those points. The details matter.
The point of these election debates is meant to be to talk about those details, to examine each side’s plans, to inform voters about the choice in front of them. That’s borderline impossible when neither candidate lets the other speak.