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Impact of leaders debate questioned -

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Broadcast: 13/09/2004

Impact of leaders debate questioned


TONY JONES: Only one in 10 Australians saw last night's prime-time election debate and they were
mostly over 40 years of age.

So will it make any difference?

Labor leader Mark Latham hopes so.

Judged by many the winner of the political showdown, Mr Latham today called for more debates.

But Prime Minister John Howard isn't interested and with four weeks to go before the election, the
memory of who won or lost will probably fade fast.

That's why some observers believe it's time to take the debate out of the hands of politicians and
press gallery journalists, as Margot O'Neill reports.

MARK LATHAM, OPPOSITION LEADER: We had the big debate last night, did you catch it?

VOTER: No, Australian Idol.

MARGOT O'NEILL: It was the contest of would-be popstars, not prime ministers, that won last night's

Channel Ten's Australian Idol and its blunt-speaking judges like Dicko blitzed the Great Debate
contenders who in the end barely debated at all.

ANTONY GREEN, ELECTION ANALYST: Last night really suffered because it was, well, stodge is the best
way to describe it.

DR JOHN UHR, ANU: Maybe we do need a Dicko at the next debate - somebody who can actually tell them
to get a bit real if they're going to present themselves to the Australian community, maybe we need
to rough it up a bit.

MARGOT O'NEILL: Mark Latham seems ready to oblige - offering to debate John Howard and Peter
Costello together.

MARK LATHAM: I'll take them both on - cage match - whatever format they want.

MARGOT O'NEILL: The Prime Minister, meanwhile, lamented how the worm turned against him.

JOHN HOWARD, PRIME MINISTER: I'm glad the worm doesn't have a vote.

MARGOT O'NEILL: The swinging voters behind the worm poll certainly do have a vote, but Mr Howard
should relax - only about one in 10 Australians bothered watching it live last night.

Most of those who did were over 40, with the biggest group over 65.

And it's likely very few of them were the swinging voters who'll decide the election.

So what impact will this once only contest actually have?

ANTONY GREEN: I'm not convinced that debates here really have much impact.

MARGOT O'NEILL: In fact, it was the lowest-rating debate since electronic ratings started - just

The high watermark was the first debate between Paul Keating and John Howard in 1996.

It rated 18.5.

There's been a steady decline ever since.

Some critics blame the increasingly sanitised format.

DR JOHN UHR: "What is this all about?", people are thinking.

You've got a group of elected voters put in another room and their only form of participation is to
play with a squiggle or a worm and then you've got the politicians locked up with the journalists
as though this is an inside story about the political process.

So the disengagement factor is quite high.

MARGOT O'NEILL: It wasn't always so.

the first Australian debate was in 1984 between Bob Hawke and Andrew Peacock.

It was before a live audience.

ANDREW PEACOCK, NOVEMBER 26 1984: Some people look at Mr Hawke and see a messiah, but I look him
and see the next ambassador to UNESCO.

MARGOT O'NEILL: By 1993, there was no live audience, there was the worm.

ANTONY GREEN: Both parties absolutely hated it because instead of actually listening to the debate
people watched the worm go up and down.

MARGOT O'NEILL: So on the 20th anniversary of Australia's first election debate, what evidence is
there that they effect election outcomes?

Most debates are won by Opposition leaders, but only half the time do they go on to win the
election as well.

Kim Beazley won both the 1998 and 2001 debates.

He lost both elections.

For the debates to be more meaningful, critics say they need to be organised by an independent
body, such as in the United States.

There, since 1987, a presidential commission sponsors two debates in the lead-up to each election,
including nominating locations, dates, moderators and even a live audience.

Debates here could also be opened up to voters and to all political parties, according to Dr John

DR JOHN UHR: Get all the leaders of all the major parties represented and secondly get the live
audience in, or if the live audience won't come in get the politicians out to the live audience.

Put them in front of town hall meetings in the way Latham has experimented with.

MARGOT O'NEILL: But somehow it's hard to imagine our politicians giving up carefully crafted sound
bites for politics reality TV style.

Margot O'Neill, Lateline.