Every three years, we go through the same election debate ritual. No, not decrying the debates themselves as boring and pointless, but complaining about the silly wrangling and brinkmanship between the parties and the banal formats that remove as much risk as possible from the debates. At least this time around we were spared any stupidity over the “worm”, but otherwise this might have been 2010, or 2007, or 2004, just with a different cast.
The media is complicit in this. It allows the parties to get away with refusing to agree to some permanent arrangements for election debates. To its credit, the Canberra press gallery has pressed the parties hard to come to permanent arrangements for campaign debates, without a result. But what is needed is a more aggressive approach by the media, in refusing to cover, moderate or participate in leaders’ debates that aren’t established in accordance with mutually agreed arrangements negotiated outside of campaigns, or under the auspices of some form of debates commission (the Americans have a Commission on Presidential Debates, established by both the Republicans and the Democrats, for overseeing debates).
Moreover, we need an actual debate between the leaders, not last night’s format where they may as well have been beamed in from different cities, so little did they interact. That, of course, is exactly what the parties do not want, because that’s more risky.
The time to work through all this is after the coming election, not during the 2016 election campaign. And the media has a role to play in forcing the parties to accept genuine debates.