Leaders' Debate: Round 1

Michael J. Jensen

Senior Lecturer at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra

The first leaders' debate of the 2016 campaign saw high marks for Bill Shorten who won a plurality of the votes among the audience of undecided voters. The debate for the most part was an extension of the debate over the budget. There were no questions about climate change or refugee policy. There were two general criteria for evaluating the budget presented in this debate: a) the achieving a budget surplus and paying down the national debt as fiscal necessity and b) the budget must above all be fair.

Both Shorten and Turnbull agreed that budgets must be fair (we saw what happened to the last government which was unsuccessful in beating back the charge of unfairness) and while Turnbull ended the debate with a sermon on the necessity of achieving a budget surplus, even Shorten was compelled to assure voters that his policies were all costed and paid for by other changes to the budget. Pundits suggested that the nature of the questions were an advantage to Shorten since most people were concerned with spending on public services such as health care and education, and that cuts to those services would be seen as unfair, impacting most significantly the middle and working classes. Shorten's line that the budget is a series of political choices might be seen as a response to the claims of necessity in bringing the budget into surplus as soon as possible. 

While Shorten generally impressed, it is also true that such debates typically advantage the challenger who benefits from being seen on the same stage as the PM. When it came to the actual debating, some commentators suggested that Shorten was “sharper and crisper” but most commentators did not dig far into the line-by-line of the debate. If one were to consider the “People's Forum” in terms of the clash of arguments – their advancement and refutation – between the two party leaders, one would need to pay closer attention to the specific arguments presented and the extent to which the reasoning for each argument was undermined.

To start, what is an argument precisely? As Dallas Perkins, the director of the Harvard debate team, used to say, “you need a claim with a warrant – we call that an argument”. Refutation strategies then involve claims attacking the warrants. This involves addressing the evidentiary or factual basis for the argument and the inferences drawn from those data. Additionally, they may challenge the overall framing of the issue suggesting an alternative way of thinking about a topic such as placing it in a wider context. We can see all of these moves in the first leaders' debate of the 2016 election campaign.

The factual basis of claims for or against a policy is a common line of attack in a political debate. This came up in the responses of Turnbull and Shorten to the first question in the debate concerning the outsourcing of jobs overseas. Shorten noted that Australia was losing its auto industry and that the government had contracted naval vessels from a Spanish supplier rather than an Australian shibuilder. He stressed the need to invest in a workforce that will attract multinational corporations to come to Australia (apparently independent of the actions both parties say they would take to claim more tax receipts from these firms). Turnbull's response to the question stressed his plans to reduce business taxes and invest in job growth along with the free trade agreements which were enacted during the watch of the Coalition government. But more importantly, he noted the growth of 3000,000 jobs under the watch of the coalition and 26,000 in March this year alone. If the concern about outsourcing is the loss of jobs, Shorten made no inroads on Turnbull's defence as he had no counter to the factual basis of

Turnbull's argument that his government's policies are effective at creating jobs nor did he provide an alternative framing of the claim. Perhaps 300,000 is a low figure, perhaps these are inferior jobs, and perhaps Labor could do better or provide a stronger foundation for job growth. Perhaps there is value beyond jobs to maintaining national manufacturing capacities. But Shorten made none of these counters to reframe the issue or challenge the inference drawn between Coalition trade and tax policies and job growth. 

Perhaps Shorten's strongest topic was education. He spoke of specific aims in terms of funding arts and music, programs to help students catch up, and special programs for the brightest students. Surveys typically show that Labor has more credibility in funding programs such as education and health care which gives Shorten and a Labor government more generalized trust in the delivery of these services. Turnbull conceded the fact Labor will spend more but tried to reframe the issue such that money does not equate to results. This point Shorten conceded while maintaining that, all things equal, more money was better than less. Turnbull attempted to gain offence cutting into the trust for Labor by demystifying Gonski funding by arguing that it is not one sacred pact with schools but 27 “inconsistent” agreements with schools which by the end of reply morphed into “contradictory” agreements (the two of descriptions of course are not logically equivalent). Shorten did not push back against that claim, perhaps on the advice common in campaigning that “if you are explaining you are losing”. While that may be good advice when facing voters and a punditocracy uninterested in that level of nuance, ultimately Labor needs to convince voters that failing to live up to the Gonski “ideal” is unacceptable. In the end Turnbull argued that there was a $7 billion difference out of a planned spend of over $70 billion by Labor. Both leaders argued that the money would be targeted to improve the education system in various ways but Labor was unable to explain what $7 billion more would buy them and neither leader what able to make much headway in explaining the value added of their programs or regulations. Turnbull offered there would be more student assessments under a Coalition government, a point Shorten said was not entirely bad but neither side was able to show why their funding and reform plans would provide specific advantages over the other. Likely Turnbull knew this was not a winning issue for the Coalition and hoped to just tread water on the issue against Shorten. 

Despite the lack of a specific question on negative gearing both leaders were eager to discuss their policies and attack their opponent's. The debate involved challenges to the facts of the matter, the framing of the issue, and the inferences that should be drawn from the data. The Coalition likes to talk about the relatively wide income range of people who use negative gearing while Labor likes to talk about the fact that most of the benefits go to the highest income brackets since they own more and more expensive investment properties. This is a clash over which inferences we should draw from the data. Should we assume that negative gearing is mostly a benefit to the wealthiest Australians or that a wider segment of the population including many in the middle class take at least some advantage of these provisions. A second dimension which Turnbull and Shorten clashed was in terms of the framing of the issue. The Coalition focuses on the rental market which also helps them make a play for the votes lower income and younger voters who currently find themselves in the rental market unable to purchase a home, at least in the near future. Labor frames the matter in terms of the effects on first time home buyers, arguing that negative gearing drives up the cost of housing and amounts to a way for the wealthiest to reduce their tax burden, taking away money that could be spent on government services. There is little one side or the other can say in the debate because most voters are likely to decide the issue based on their situations rather than the effects of negative gearing on rental prices or the costs for first time buyers. Finally, there was a dispute as to the facts of the matter concerning the consequences of curtailing negative gearing. Turbull claims that when negative gearing was abolished in the 1980s rents went up leading to its reintroduction, whereas Shorten appealed to statements from the RBA, the Grattan Institute, and even former Liberal Treasurer, Joe Hockey, in suggesting that there were good policy grounds to reduce negative gearing concessions.

The closing remarks revealed very different strategies between the two candidates. For some reason, Turnbull decided to end the debate focusing exclusively on the deficit and spending. He had just answered a question on the topic and did not add much additional insight as to why voters should vote for the Coalition on these grounds than he already provided. There may be a political advantage in repetition of the theme as more voters are likely to take that message away from the debate. However, citizens whose vote is significantly influenced by whether a party will reduce spending and the deficit are likely going to vote for the Coalition anyway. Shorten meanwhile used his closing to frame the debate as a clash over priorities and emphasized his “positive” plans (presumably to contrast with an anticipated negative campaign waged over climate change policies at some stage), to provide Australians a fair go. Shorten's framing of the debate in terms of fairness and priorities was not significantly challenged by Turnbull and in that sense, it is understandable why many thought Shorten won the debate. On the other hand, Shorten has a ways to go in terms of proving Labor's agenda will produce demonstrable benefits for the Australian people and /or that the Coalition's agenda will make them worse off. Shorten landed few punches in that regard and perhaps Turnbull did enough to make it through this round in a relatively good position to gain advantage on more favourable terms as the campaign progresses.

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