Only two elections in Australia this year, compared to last year’s four, but they are the two big ones: a federal election to be held sometime late in the year (October is tipped as the most likely date), and the New South Wales election on 24 March.

Although Labor has been in power in NSW since 1995, and its performance in the current term has been less than stellar, it is widely expected that Morris Iemma’s government will be re-elected. The most recent Newspoll, published just after Christmas, gave it a comfortable 53-47 lead over the opposition.

So opposition leader Peter Debnam – whose dissatisfaction rating has reached a striking 42% – needs all the help he can get. And it’s qualified good news for him that Iemma has agreed to holding a televised debate prior to the election – something his predecessor Bob Carr had always refused to do.

To get the debate, however, Debnam has had to agree to all of Iemma’s conditions. There will be no live audience, the leaders will debate seated, not standing (Debnam is considerably taller), and most importantly, the debate will be held five weeks ahead of the election, on 16 February. Very few voters will be focused on the election by then, and those who are will have plenty of time to forget the debate before polling day.

The leaders’ debate is becoming an established part of the Australian political scene. In federal elections they date back to the Hawke-Peacock contest of 1984, and it would now be very hard for a prime minister to refuse to participate in one. State leaders can still get away with not holding them, as both Carr and Jeff Kennett did, and Peter Beattie still does, but the tide is clearly running against them.

The big problem is the way the timing and format of debates are manipulated to the government’s advantage. Debates held before a campaign has even begun are better than nothing, but not much better.

What we need is an impartial body to organise the debates (the role that used to be performed by the League of Women Voters in the US), and enough media pressure to ensure that both leaders turn up – or be humiliated by having their rival debate an empty chair.