When Malcolm Turnbull became prime minister, one of his very first appearances was on the ABC’s 7.30 with host Leigh Sales.
He’s appeared a few times since. During a March appearance, Sales asked Turnbull to commit to “two prime-time lengthy interviews on this show during the election campaign”.
The number wasn’t picked out of the air; Sales said prime ministerial contenders had done two campaign interviews on the program for as long as she could remember. And Turnbull didn’t seem opposed to the idea. “Why only two?” he asked. “Are politicians so dull? It could be quite a long election campaign … Maybe we could have more.”
Bill Shorten had a similar response when asked a week earlier. “I think that this election, if we can get the ideas out and have a good debate about ideas, who’s got the positive plans for Australia, well, why wouldn’t I want to be in that debate?”
But we’re more than halfway through the election, and Turnbull hasn’t appeared on 7.30 — and neither has Shorten.
“We are very keen to have both leaders on at least twice during the campaign, which is what they committed to beforehand,” 7.30 executive producer Jo Puccini told Crikey. “Clearly it’s in the public interest during an election campaign to have them both appear for wide-ranging, in-depth, prime-time TV interviews.
“We have been in daily contact with both offices to organise the first appearance.”
It’s not just 7.30. Neither leader has done Lateline, or Sky News, or Radio National. Both have also been absent from Q&A — on which Turnbull used to regularly appear when he was a minister. Both leaders have spoken to Marie Claire, but not, so far, to Insiders.
Yesterday, Turnbull said his campaign was looking at “alternatives” to a “People’s Forum” to be held in Queensland tomorrow by Sky News and The Courier-Mail. “What I’m hoping to do is to have a debate that is a bit different, that involves Facebook and that involves a larger audience and that is more engaging,” he said at a doorstop. “So I can assure you I enjoy debating and I want to reach as many people as I possibly can.”
If Turnbull enjoys debating, you wouldn’t pick it from his avoidance of sustained questioning.
Look through the recent media appearances archived on Malcolm Turnbull’s website, and you see a sea of doorstops. Occasionally, there’s an interview with local media. Turnbull spoke to Adelaide talkback station FIVEaa, owned by Nova, last Friday, and earlier spoke to Territory FM, ABC Far North Queensland, and Mix 104.9 Darwin.
In fact, Turnbull’s done quite a bit of talkback this campaign. The only broadcaster of national profile he’s spoken to has been 2GB’s Alan Jones. The appearances followed a long period where it appeared Turnbull was steadfastly avoiding Macquarie Radio’s shock jocks, after a spectacular on-air blowup he had with Jones in 2014. But the hatchet’s buried now — so far this campaign, he’s been on Jones’ show twice.
In early May, Turnbull did a flurry of interviews with journalists like David Speers, Fran Kelly and Patricia Karvelas — but that was just after the budget, and before he called the election.
If we count just broadcast, Shorten’s done even fewer one-on-one interviews than Turnbull has. He spoke to ABC Statewide Drive right at the start of the campaign on May 10, in a very budget-focused interview. The same day he also spoke to ABC Townsville. On the weekend beginning May 7 — hours before the election was called — he spoke to both Today and Sunrise.
Lobbyist Toby Ralph, who worked on all of John Howard’s election campaigns, says the leaders are being risk-averse — but because the election is so long, the public won’t punish them for it. Yet.
“For the soft voter this election hasn’t started yet; it’s just a dull buzz between the interesting bits in the news,” he said. “The two main contenders are like boxers, shaping up to each other and trying to find a way to land a punch without getting hit.
“They’re risk averse, and that’s been obvious in everything from interviews through set pieces and the debate. It’s even evident in policies. The Coalition is buying off marginals by renovating swimming pools, giving grants to footy clubs or buying submarines. Labor is running the classic bank-bashing, 49% tax for the rich while hosing money at people that might vote for them — it’s so traditional it’s almost as quaint as Morris dancing.
“So while both parties are busy doing nothing, punters are turning away to independents.”
We can expect the campaigning to start in earnest only a few weeks before polling day, Ralph says. And that’s when “risks will be taken and the attacks will get vicious”. It’s also when the public will begin to notice and punish leaders who don’t risk confrontational interviews.
“Elections are a baptism of fire, and the public won’t vote for someone that dodges the flames,” he said.
Maybe we’re beginning to see a shift already. On last night’s episode of Q&A, host Tony Jones told the audience Bill Shorten was appearing, alone, next Monday from Penrith.
Jones appeared to leave the door open for Turnbull to join him. “We see reports today the Prime Minister is looking for a national debate, that’s live and interactive with questions from Australian citizens and social media. If only such a thing existed.
“Prime Minister, Q&A is ready when you are.”