Page last updated at 09:25 GMT, Tuesday, 13 April 2010 10:25 UK

Televised election debates: Lessons from Down Under

By Nick Bryant
BBC Sydney correspondent

Kangaroos boxing
Sparring in TV debates has been going on down under since the 1980s

While the lingua franca of Australian politics can often be a little too franca for some sensibilities, the approach taken by antipodean politicians to TV debates might provide some useful lessons for Messrs Brown, Cameron and Clegg.

They have been a regular feature of Australian election campaigns since the mid-1980s and although audiences have been in steady decline, studies have shown they can shift between 1 and 2% of the vote.

Though small, the impact can be highly significant, especially in a tight race.

To adopt the parlance commonly deployed in post-debate coverage, "knock-down" punches are rare.

Tellingly, the same is true of US presidential debates. For many viewers, debates tend to linger in the mind about as long as a one-day cricket international.

Still, while most Australian debates have not necessarily produced dramatic, unforgettable exchanges, they have become the main forum through which the leaders present themselves to a sizeable proportion of the electorate in one sitting.

Detailed policy statements are often less important than the more general impressions the candidates create.

'Wormology'

Bruce Hawker, who helped mastermind Kevin Rudd's victory for Labor at the 2007 election, says the televised debates mark the true start of the campaign for many voters.

"They often give the public for the first time a feel of where the politician is coming from on very, very important issues," he says.

"They often signify really the first point in a campaign when people are starting to focus on real issues and the values which the leaders hold. That's probably more important than anything else."

What makes Australian debates particularly entertaining is the presence on the commercial channels of "the worm" - an invertebrate which crawls up and down the screen gauging audience reaction from a group of a undecided viewers.

The "wormology" of Australian debates is particularly instructive. The worm tends to favour progressive politicians over conservatives.

'The worm' responds positively to Kevin Rudd's speech
One of the worst things that can happen to you as a parent is when in the middle of the night your little one gets sick
Kevin Rudd sends the worm sky-ward

It prefers nice to nasty. It responds well to personal anecdotes and stories. It heads in an upward trajectory when it hears words and phrases like 'fairness' and 'working together,' and does not much like 'tax' or personal insults.

"The worm is very Aussie, very larrikin," says Ray Martin, one of Australia's most instantly recognisable newsmen who moderated many of the debates as the face of Channel Nine News.

"The worm doesn't like anger, it doesn't like smart arses. It likes inspiration.

"If you say 'this is the greatest city or country in the world', the worm goes through the roof. If you say 'well, the problem we've got is our hospitals don't work', it goes down. But we've found it unerringly accurate over the 20 years we've done it."

But there are others who think the worm is a moron because it often likes to hear positive, sugar-coated messages rather than stark, unpalatable truths. It likes to be soothed.

Though the election has yet to be called in Australia, the leaders have clashed already in a televised debate over health care.

'What's important'

Kevin Rudd, who was almost universally judged to have been the winner, delivered something of a master class in how to woo the worm. His opponent, the new Liberal leader, Tony Abbott, showed how easily it can be alienated.

Rudd's opening statement was typically worm-centric: "Ladies and gentlemen, one of the worst things that can happen to you as a parent is when in the middle of the night your little one gets sick, or they have an accident at school or at sport.

FULL GUIDE TO TV DEBATES
Stands for leaders' debate

"And then suddenly you are taking them off to an emergency department and you're worried about how they're going to come through, and sometimes, worried if they're going to come through. It reminds us of what's important in life, what's really important in life."

The worm kept on heading upwards:

"My mum was a nurse, my sister is still a nurse, my sister-in-law is a nurse. Those family experiences instilled deeply within me a deep and abiding belief that having a first-class healthcare system, a first class hospital system, is basic to the Australian fair go."

In this proudly egalitarian country, mention of the "Australian fair go" is almost guaranteed to hit the worm's G-spot.

'Fair go'

So consider the strategy behind this opening statement.

From the very outset, Rudd was trying to connect with his audience on a highly personal level.

I feel your anxieties, he was saying, because as a parent I have felt them myself. He told a biographical story, which normally works well. And he reached for common accord: In this instance, the belief in the much-vaunted Australian "fair go".

Tony Abbott's central mistake during the debate was to make sarcastic jokes, caustic one-liners which would have delighted the backbenches in parliament but did not really work for people watching at home on their sofas.

Tony Abbott
Tony Abbott's jokes fell flat with the audience at home

"I'm at a terrible disadvantage in this debate," he said to the disapproval of the worm, "because I'm not capable for waffling for two minutes like the prime minister is."

Responding to a question on dentistry, Abbott noted: "Dentistry can be a little bit painful, and you need an anaesthetist.

"And it's interesting that the prime minister has had some medical experience as an anaesthetist in the House of Representatives."

In response, the worm headed so far south that it almost slithered off my television set and sought refuge in the top of my home stereo.

On more substantive debating points, Abbott presented some strong arguments, but the post-debate coverage was dominated by how a couple of feeble stabs at humour had sent the worm into free-fall.

Yet this brings us to another important lesson from Australia: In two out of the last three elections, the leader judged to have won the televised debate went on to lose the election.



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