Debate was highlight of campaign so far – a pity more couldn’t have watched

On Wednesday night, the two men vying to govern Australia’s 26 million people debated in front of a tiny fraction of them on Sky News, which is a bit like trying to win the Eurovision song contest by appealing to San Marino.

The background to the People’s Forum was a campaign filled with sniping, gaffes and precious few new ideas – whereas the backdrop to the debate was a wall of News Corp logos, because Australian democracy is now a media company’s marketing opportunity. It was novel, however, to see a Courier-Mail logo without a headline criticising Anthony Albanese underneath.

It was pleasant to spend an hour watching our leaders genuinely addressing the people they’re supposed to represent.Credit:Jason Edwards

Before it began, Paul Murray told us how strong Scott Morrison had been all over the country, and that the opposition leader had yet to make a case for change, while Peta Credlin spoke wistfully of the strong, substantive policy focus Tony Abbott brought in 2013.

But once the two leaders were able to speak for themselves, it was engrossing – and moderator Kieran Gilbert was impressively even-handed. It’s a pity more people couldn’t have watched; the debate was the highlight of the campaign so far, albeit much as a vending machine full of stale chips is welcome at 3am.

Just about every question addressed issues that truly matter: disaster relief, the NDIS, small business and housing affordability. Bizarrely, none of the audience members thought to try and trick the leaders with an economic statistic.

Other questions addressed the integrity commission, China, the Solomon Islands, electric cars and the ‘boat turnbacks’ both sides now warmly endorse. There was a minimum of point scoring and griping – Morrison’s claim that Labor was on China’s side a notable exception – and most questions were largely answered. No questioner gave a rambling, self-indulgent rave, making the audience standard higher than any writers’ festival.

Scott Morrison was upbeat and sunny, and clearly the more skilled debater. Anthony Albanese was less polished but more empathetic, and connected questions to his well-honed attack lines, pulling the government up repeatedly on its record.

Sky assembled 100 undecided voters to give their verdict, and as they voted, we crossed to its extremely decided group of presenters, most of whom thought Albanese lost the debate on boat turnbacks and played the clip repeatedly – Murray said Morrison “cleaned his clock”.

Eventually, Sky gave the result from the room – 40-35 to Albanese, with 25 per cent undecided – and then went straight back to Chris Kenny going on about boats.

In truth, both leaders were largely unscathed, but given Morrison has been doing Sky News ‘pub tests’ for fun lately, Albanese likely gained more by surviving his trip to a broadcaster whose usual Wednesday night fare is wall-to-wall warnings about him – the ‘Each-Way Albo’ graphics resumed shortly after the debate wrapped up.

On a night when even Andrew Bolt was saying Morrison had failed to talk about the future like his opponent had, and praised the opposition leader for his passion, compassion, and – seriously – not scaring people, Albanese would be happy with his trip to the People’s Forum.

But to Sky’s credit, it was pleasant to spend a rare hour watching our leaders genuinely addressing the people they’re supposed to represent.

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