leaders debate
Tony Abbott in the 2010 leaders debate (Image: YouTube)

Tonight Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten will face off in the first television leaders’ debate of the election campaign. But don’t expect huge ratings or any big, vote-swinging zingers. Instead, tonight’s edition — shunted onto Seven’s second channel — will likely show just how far debates have fallen in importance to the election campaign.

Dwindling ratings

Once upon a time, leaders’ debates were prime-time ratings gold. In 2001, the debate between John Howard and Kim Beazley was watched by 2.44 million, while 2007’s showdown between Howard and Rudd was watched by 2.4 million. The 2010 debate between Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott was pushed out of its 7.30pm timeslot to avoid clashing with the finale of MasterChef, but still attracted around 3 million viewers across numerous networks. For context, that year’s AFL Grand Final was watched by 3.6 million. 

Then the decline kicked in. In 2013 Nine — for whom election debates had previously been a ratings bonanza –shifted Rudd v Abbott to its second channel Gem. The debate drew 1.5 million viewers across seven channels — 1 million viewers less than various reality shows TV stations which ran on the same night.

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By 2016, the irrelevance of debates was on full display. The first debate was held on a Friday night, locked behind the Sky News paywall. It drew just 54,000 viewers (something of a ratings hit for Sky’s after dark content). The second debate returned to the ABC and drew 875,000 viewers, but that number quickly fell within three minutes of the relatively pedestrian affair kicking off.

Did voters stop caring?

Not only are debates less watched, surveys suggest they’re less important to voters. Since 1990, the Australian Electoral Study has tracked whether people watched the leadership debate. Interest peaked in 1993, when 71% of respondents said they tuned in (that debate was between Paul Keating and John Hewson; the Liberal leader led his party to defeat in the “unloseable” election). By 2016, that figure had plummeted to 21%.

This decline could be in part due to changes in the way we engage with politics. Social media gives voters unfettered access to politicians, and a constant opportunity to make their views heard. When punters can go off at politicians online at any time and watch their gaffes and candid moments via livestream, a leaders’ debate seems more and more like a series of scripted soundbites.

The fate of the Worm is something of a case study in changing voter engagement. First introduced in the 1990s, the little line which wriggled across the bottom of television screens to gauge the reaction of swinging voters was once a staple of election season.

The Worm was unpopular among politicians — so much so that in 2007, the Coalition refused to let Nine use it during the Howard-Rudd debate. When the network used it anyway, the National Press Club controversially cut their broadcast twice. This led then-Greens leader Bob Brown to call for a Senate inquiry.

But by 2016, the Worm was gone. Instead, discussion had moved online to Facebook and Twitter. Even the debates themselves were being live-streamed via social media platforms. Platforms like Facebook also give viewers the opportunity to react to live content, creating an online version of the Worm.

The decline of the debate might be a reflection of the decline of TV itself. But in other countries, debates still seem to matter. In the United States, presidential debates are still something of a political Super Bowl; in 2016 they drew in more than 80 million television viewers (not including the many more who streamed online) and inspired a constant stream of memes. Before the 2015 general election in the United Kingdom, a survey found that 38% of voters’ decision were influenced by the four televised leaders’ debates. 

So, is it us? Maybe Australia’s dwindling interest in leaders’ debates is another symptom of a tired and apathetic electorate.

Do you care about the debates? Why do you think people are tuning out? Send your comments to boss@crikey.com.au.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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