Election debate straight from political playbook

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Dr Andrea Carson

Lecturer in Media and Politics

Honorary Fellow, Centre for Advancing Journalism

University of Melbourne

Twitter: @andrea_carson

If you are hosting an election debate you have plenty of format choices - an expert panel of journalists? A celebrity host to moderate the verbal duel between political leaders? Or, perhaps the Obama-inspired town hall with questions from a floor of undecided voters?


Last night's organisers of the only Victorian 2014 election debate between Victorian Premier Denis Napthine and Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews selected the latter format, with Sky News anchor David Speers hosting. It is worth noting because it had all the hallmarks of a genuine debate except that, other than the 100 'undecided' voters in attendance in Frankston, it lacked an audience.


This was because of a stitched-up deal where non-News Corporation media were shut out of the rights to broadcast the event. It seems an odd start for Victorians trying to get a true sense of the policies and personality of the two leaders vying to be the next Premier 10 days out from polling day.


The debate itself, streamed on the Herald Sun website (luckily for me), was pretty tepid and predictable. Both leaders wore blue suits and unsurprisingly had ties matching party colours. Red, of course, for Labor's Mr Andrews. Blue (with polka dots) for Mr Napthine.


Including the host, the three men at the front of the Frankston venue wore dark coloured suits – it looked like navy blue from my low resolution internet stream – and all their names began with D. To make it more confusing they were all standing at about the same height.  Even those in the audience couldn't really make up their minds, with the 100 voters narrowly awarding Mr Andrews the debate victory with 39 votes, just one ahead of Dr Napthine on 38 and 23 left undecided.


Daniel Andrews got lucky and won the toss. His opening five-minute gambit was a rollicking smorgasbord of promises – removing 50 level crossings, ending the 'war' on ambos, bringing back technical schools albeit 'refined and reformed', and improving the quality of school buildings for our children.


Denis Napthine, the seasoned politician, kept to a tighter message. Trust. Who do you trust with government? Who do you trust with the AAA Victorian economy? And who do you trust to grow 200,000 jobs over the next five years to "build a better Victoria"?


Both men showed discipline. They kept to the election-debate playbook by being very polite. They thanked every questioner for their question, they thanked the audience for attending, they thanked every speaker for contributing to the local community whether it be as a carer, a granny, a volunteer and so on. They took it in turns to respond. They remembered questioners' names, and they peppered their own responses with little personal titbits.


For instance, we learned that Denis (I think we can use first names here when they are being so sharing) was one of 10 children growing up in the fertile farmland of the Western districts of Winchelsea. Daniel grew up on a beef farm, but in the northeast of the state near Wangaratta. Speech writers know this is called 'the handshake' – it's a speaker's device to get the audience to feel relaxed and comfortable with your presence by sharing a few personal details.  Denis did this well. He told us that his father taught him to always listen to people, but to judge them on their actions. This stirring anecdote was a nifty segue to remind the audience that the previous Labor Government had overspent on the Myki public transport ticketing system, AND the North-South water pipeline, AND the Wonthaggi desalination plant.


But it was not one-way traffic. Mr Andrews, through a media technique called bridging, managed to redirect many of the audience questions back to repeat (again and again and again) his commitment to get rid of 50 level-crossings (obviously there are a few of them in the Frankston area) and reminded us that only HE would fix the TAFE system because "our kids deserve better".


But even with low-resolution online streaming, you could see that Mr Napthine's trust issue was on the Opposition Leader's mind. In response to John's question about banning duck hunting, Mr Andrew's was frank: "My answer will not please you either, but it's most important we be straight in our answers."


When Roger asked about the East-West tunnel and the importance for producers to have a second container port, Mr Andrews used his bridging technique to again state his commitment to remove level crossings: "My heart is in this, they are going to go."


But David Speers, a veteran of the political debate, swiftly ended these cheeky redirections: "Roger didn't ask about level crossings."


This exchange fired up the first of three climaxes in audience reactions for the night. The first was a bit of toing and froing between Mr Andrews and Mr Napthine over exactly how much the East-West tunnel would cost taxpayers. Mr Napthine rejected a collaborative Melbourne University study finding last month that the total project cost would be about $17 billion. Mr Andrews stepped in, inviting the crowd to learn the "real cost" of the East-West tunnel. "Nooooo the audience shouted." Mr Andrews replied: "I was going to say $17 billion". A loud audience voice replied: "We don't believe you."


The second audience climax came after a man called Adrian questioned Mr Napthine about the lack of travel entitlements for some war veterans. Both Mr Napthine and Mr Andrews quickly assured all veterans would get the same entitlements if they won the November 29 election. The audience applauded and David Speers awarded Adrian with two more questions.


The final audience reaction, and the question bound to make headlines today, came when David Speers asked both party leaders if they could guarantee there would be no new taxes under the government they lead (sound familiar). 'Yes', nodding enthusiastically, both could guarantee it. Hearty applause followed. In their final statements, Mr Napthine stayed on message and appealed to the Frankston folk to consider his question of trust. Mr Andrews promised to work hard, fix the level crossings and the TAFE system and to put people first. Curiously, of all the words spoken last night, no one mentioned Frankton's current political representative, Geoff Shaw. Perhaps, the 23 undecided voters know why?


Andrea Carson is a lecturer in media and politics at the University of Melbourne.