News Politics Democracy the clear loser in Channel Nine’s new debate format
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Democracy the clear loser in Channel Nine’s new debate format

Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese have gone head to head

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When leaders debates first became part of Australian election campaigns they were seen as advantaging Opposition Leaders, who could finally share a spotlight.

Since then academics have struggled to prove these debates have a significant influence on elections.

On Sunday Channel Nine presented its new take on a format featured in election campaigns for over three decades: categorically, this was a bad night for democratic debate.

Amid technology problems, Twitter conspiracies and oddly persistent whispers about the integrity of an unweighted telephone poll of a television program audience, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was declared the debate’s winner.

But that honour was soon revoked. Contradictory announcements eventually gave way to the final declaration of a draw.

Sunday night plot twists like this are hard to come by at the National Press Club.

Two press gallery high priests were on hand to offer post-game analysis about what this phone poll might mean for the Australian federal election to be held this month.

Channel Nine proved that even a forum founded on the unambitious promise of showcasing politics as usual could still find ways to disappoint.

Rules limiting responses to no longer than one minute made answers, especially Mr Morrison’s, feel like they had been delivered by a game show contestant.

Any signs of equivocation on a six-point plan might well have been the cue for a contestant to be pushed into a previously unacknowledged swimming pool.

What substance could be addressed within such limits? Less than was being anticipated

Despite appearing before a panel including Deborah Knight, the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader were not at all discouraged from colouring outside the lines.

Shouting, interruptions, self-indulgent huffing and attacks marred leaders’ responses to questions. Only TV reporter Sarah Abo appeared concerned about trying to preserve order and Nine Entertainment’s journalistic reputation.

Nine’s effort had the unintended effect of casting last month’s previously-maligned Sky News People’s Forum in a sympathetic new light.

Whatever else might be said about that network, Sky calculated its vote on the leaders’ debate performance only once.

What’s more its viewer-chosen questions touched on issues outside the Canberra consensus that both leaders navigate with their eyes closed.

Expert journalists shed far less light.

What did we learn? Nothing to shatter preconceptions.

One of the more interesting moments came when Mr Morrison was under scrutiny for previously saying the COVID-19 vaccine rollout was “not a race”.

The Prime Minister upgraded an earlier expression of regret for his choice of words: “It was a race, Anthony, and we shouldn’t have described it in those terms.”

Only a week after unveiling a positive message for his bid for the Lodge, Mr Albanese concluded his remarks not by appealing to a “better future” but by attacking Mr Morrison for allegedly not taking responsibility for the failings of the government.

In the end Channel Nine taught us all a thing or two about keeping our hopes low in the era of democratic decline.

A 2007 leaders debate was marred by allegations of censorship after Nine’s Ray Martin alleged the network’s feed of the event was cut because it included a realtime tracker of voter-sentiment dubbed “the worm”.

Then Prime Minister John Howard had said the graph was distracting. His opponent, Kevin Rudd, launched a petition to preserve its inclusion in broadcasts and invite supporters to “be a friend of the worm”.

Who among the journalistic leaders and public intellectuals in that audience identified what would soon be regarded as a high-watermark in Australian political dialogue?