A proposal to establish an independent commission to control Federal election debates has been sunk by the Rudd Government, which has changed its stance on the timing of debates.

In an email sent to the Press Gallery this afternoon, Gallery president Phillip Hudson advised that negotiations between the Press Gallery board and the Government had foundered on the refusal of the Government to accept a previously-agreed position on having a debate the Sunday before the election.  The Government also insisted that the agreement be for debates during “the election season” rather than specifically during the election campaign.

The outcome is a staggering display of pettiness and hypocrisy from the Rudd Government.  Labor initiated a proposal for a Debates Commission in Opposition, and the 2007 election debate bordered on farce when Channel Nine refused to abide by a Liberal Party demand that there be no “worm” in coverage and the National Press Club tried to block Nine’s feed.  Rudd scored a convincing win over Prime Minister John Howard in the single debate.  After the election, then-Special Minister of State John Faulkner approached the Gallery to pursue the Debates Commission proposal.  Last year, the discussions were on course to establish a 5-member Debates Commissions and an agreement to 2 debates at the start and end of the campaign.  Labor had previously specifically agreed to a debate on the last Sunday of the election campaign.

Thereafter, the Government appears to have got cold feet.  Hudson’s email states:

In late 2009, a change was suggested by the government. It proposed there be “up to three debates during the federal election campaign”. This still included a specific guarantee of a debate on the first Sunday and last Sunday.

Two weeks ago, further changes were proposed by the government:

The Debates Commission would be three people (instead of five). It would include one representative from the Government, Opposition and Press Gallery.

There would be “up to three debates across the election season. The exact number will be determined by the Commission”.

No guarantee of a debate on the Sunday before polling day.

The Press Gallery Committee said it was prepared to consider a three-person commission.

We did not agree with the term “election season” but we were prepared to accept it in return for a guarantee of two debates during the election campaign, including one on the Sunday before polling day.

The Government did not accept this.

As a result, the Press Gallery Committee can not support this proposal.

Like the Howard Government before it, the Rudd Government is not prepared to let a fair and independent process of conducting election debates to interfere with its strategy for winning the election.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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