The solution to the TV debates row: Follow America

Clark and Key aren't arrogant, they'd just rather campaign than debate

In Australia’s 2007 general election, there was a single televised leaders’ debate. So too the previous election. In Britain, there has never been a leaders’ debate, although they have been mooted.

Here, however, debates have become commonplace campaign events. So much so that last election it seemed at times that the campaign ceased to be a campaign. Rather than an opportunity for leaders to get around the country, get into shopping malls, speak to Greypowers and Zonta groups, or get pummelled in celebrity boxing matches, it was campaign by debate. The two main leaders devoted days preparing for and participating in a plethora of debates on TVNZ, TV3, Sky News, and various newspaper-sponsored events.

There is merit in the argument that without these political leaders would cosset themselves away. There is the risk that campaigns would be conducted by photo op. The only way to remove them from their comfort zone, it is argued, is to put them through the grist of the debating mill. And, to an extent, that is true. But we still need traditional campaigns, and so there needs to be better balance between the competing demands of debates and customary campaigning.

When there is too much focus on televised set-piece events, typical campaign events can receive little if any coverage. In 1999, for example, the Dominion managed the notable feat of covering the entire election campaign from Wellington. The only time one of its political staff ventured outside the capital was a reporter being dispatched to Tauranga – for election day! (She was then rerouted to Auckland the day after, to cover the initial Labour-Alliance post-election talks.)

Last election, TVNZ would often decide on any given day what it considered to be the day’s central theme - it might be immigration, or health, or United Future’s coalition partner posturing. If a party’s campaigning didn’t fit within the decreed theme, that party risked not featuring on the night’s news bulletin, or at least being well down it.

The news chiefs who accuse Clark and Key of arrogance over their bilateral debate decision should themselves look in the mirror. The backroom discussions are usually an exercise in media setting the rules and the politicians being required to turn up. Any attempt to finesse out some of the more odious aspects has been greeted by the media organisations as some sort of gross intrusion.

The outcomes have been decidedly mixed. Anyone who witnessed the 2007 election’s TVNZ debates saw a debacle. TVNZ, in its wisdom, decided to allow in, yet again, a partisan audience. It was like parading fresh, raw meat to rather famished hyenas. (Readers might recall Clark shouting herself hoarse to be heard, and Brash, afterwards, complaining that he had been quieter because he was gentlemanly.) Sanity prevailed at TV3, where John Campbell excluded audiences and managed to conduct relatively orderly and informative debates.

For those critics hurling epithets about arrogance, look overseas and you’ll find arrogance. Our leading politicians can be self-assured but they are – with a few notable exceptions - remarkably humble and accessible. They don’t travel in dedicated jets. Their retinues are tiny. They turn up to events of the most mundane nature and interact at the most basic level with the punters; whether it’s a visit to the Porirua market, the opening of a community art fair, a Diwali function, or a Rotary meeting.

It’s not many countries where the Prime Minister will shop at her local supermarket (St Lukes Foodtown), or pop down to her local gym as a matter of course - and without security if she can give her minders the slip, as is her wont. This is not the hallmark or an arrogant politician, or an arrogant political class. Yet, this is the accusation levelled at the two major party leaders because they’re finally saying enough to the election debate circus.

What needs to happen is – as happens in the USA, the home of the televised debate - the parties and the media need to work together on a programme of debates which are simulcast on all broadcast media. They could schedule three – perhaps four - debates. Two of them might involve the two main party leaders. A third could involve the minors as well. The fourth could be set aside for the minor party leaders only.

The media organisations could decide on a roster of presenters to moderate the debates. All could agree to keep partisan baying audience mobs at bay. And it could be sorted months in advance. With goodwill from all sides, we could actually see some sane, reasoned, and illuminating debates. And maybe the Poms could see that these things can work.