What’s what on the first candidates’ debate

Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and opposition leader Bill Shorten arrive at the grand final breakfast ahead of the GF today in Melbourne, Saturday Oct. 3, 2015. (AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy) NO ARCHIVING EDITORIAL USE ONLY

This evening, Sky News of News Corp (yes, Murdoch’s outlet — though to those of you who care to watch it, not its mouthpiece) an exclusive Foxtel news channel aired a live debate between Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull. It was moderated by News Analyst David Speers, and broadcasted from the marginal seat of Macquarie in Western Sydney.

The interesting aspect of this debate — as will be the case with all debates to follow — was that all questions asked came from people who were believed to be ‘undecided voters’ in the seat.

That’s right, real people question time, with David Speers leaving room for very little bullshit courtesy of the candidates.

As I’m writing this, at 8:01pm (AEDT) the debate has already been underway for about an hour. The breadth of questions asked have been thorough, and wide-ranging, covering the conflict in the Balkans during the ‘90s, the extradition of Australian citizens, superannuation, the outsourcing of jobs, and funding to artists.

It started off cordially, with the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader reaching forward for a quick handshake that had to be repeated for the cameras to record. With all smiles, both party leaders got geared up to be honestly held accountable to the constituents in Macquarie — and anyone home on a Friday night watching Sky.

Both parties were pressed on their policies in a multitude of areas, and I’ve attempted to summarise and analyse them to the best of my ability (in a timely fashion) below.

EDUCATION

Both Mr Turnbull and Mr Shorten agree that educating the children of the nation is, and must be, a top national priority.

Both naturally disagreed on how the end was to be achieved.

Mr Shorten’s entire education policy rests on the premise that our schools are underfunded and desperately need about 6 billion more dollars.

Mr Turnbull outlined the government’s education policy as being needs-based in terms of funding, but though he didn’t mention it during the debate, the fact is that we spend quite a bit more on education than other OECD states. However, fewer of our students can pass basic literacy and numeracy tests to the same standards as states that spend far less per student. Could this perhaps suggest that the education system needs a closer look, rather than simply having more money thrown at it? 

The question came up multiple times, in different forms, with audience members expressing concern for their children and grandchildren and finding willing allies in both the Prime Minister, and Opposition Leader.

FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY

Bill Shorten just pledged to stop serious fiscal expenditure. The interesting thing is that he went on for half a minute about his policies regarding a question that involved ‘stopping spending’, without once explaining how he is going to stop spending

Of course, his answer did not actually include stopping expenditure as much as insisting that he would increase taxes, end tax breaks — to virtually every tax bracket in the country. Not just to negative gearing, but all business taxes. This, all after he spent the last hour pledging to increase spending on education, the arts, the ABC, childcare, etc.

Malcolm Turnbull on the other hand just said the way to lower our national debt is to lower spending. He insists that the economy must grow at a rate faster than government spending, while ensuring that we remain an attractive state for investments that help our economy grow so that it can recover.

David Speers’ moderating skills asked the candidates for a serious answer on whether or not they could assure the country of when national debt would be paid off.

Mr Turnbull pointed out that ending the increase of spending would be more likely achieved under a Liberal government than Labor, despite his budget offering fewer spending cuts than were hoped by many members of his party faithful.

SUPERANNUATION

Here, I need to give serious credit to Mr Shorten. Where Mr Turnbull attempted to point out that super was never intended to be used as anything other than a retirement fund (in response to a question from a woman asking about the unfairness of using a super to pay off a house mortgage), it was Mr Shorten who firmly pointed out that Superannuation is still a fund for a particular purpose in a manner that carried through to the viewers, and he stood firm in spite of the somewhat easy victory he could have taken over Mr Turnbull had he dissembled on the issue.

CLOSING REMARKS

The debate closed at 8:20pm. With both parties outlining their own plans for Australia’s future should they have the chance for the top job.

The opposition leader’s favourite phrase during the minute allotted him was ‘positive plans’ — that the ALP envisions for its tenure in government should it win the July 2nd election.

Malcolm Turnbull focussed very strongly on message: fiscal responsibility, jobs and growth, good spending, cutting the debt. If this is an indication of the campaign to come, we may be seeing some of the discipline so clearly viewed in the Abbott 2013 federal campaign that continues to be admired by political professionals today.

MY CONCLUDING REMARKS

Though the analysts thus far seem to have supported Shorten on points (if not necessarily policy), I’d argue it was Mr Turnbull who won tonight’s debate. His strengths were in knowing his policies and staying on message. While his tone didn’t endear him to the crowd, his insistence that we are in times of economic strife and have to make certain decisions on our budgetary commitments that in an ideal world we wouldn’t.

One of the key issues in the debate that I haven’t spoken about is childcare. Neither candidate presented much of an answer to a policy in that direction, but the analysts seem to believe they will both be unveiling those plans in due course over the next 50 days of the election.

The Prime Minister’s trouble is that he does want to explain each aspect of his policies, which comes across as lecturing to many less-politically-inclined audience members. He’s going to face some serious trouble coming across as likeable during this election, as people certainly seemed to find Bill Shorten. By the end of the evening, 49% of attendees favoured the Opposition leader, 29% the Prime Minister, and 29% were basically professionally undecided.

But if this country is actually going to vote for a Prime Minister based on who they’d rather have a quick pint at the pub with, I may be incited to physical violence.

As for the opposition leader, I simply say: gold star for spending. Yes, of course, no government can ever lose an election by promising to spend a boatload of money. Great job, appealing to the masses, promising them government services left, right and centre. But that money? It comes from the never never and is just going to see our national debt balloon spectacularly.

*Avanti Oberoi is a card-carrying member of the Victorian Liberal party.

**No, I wasn’t paid to write any of that article. I assure you, there wouldn’t be a contraction in sight if I had been.

A Oberoi

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