Results of last night’s encounter between prime minister Scott Morrison and opposition leader Anthony Albanese from the room with 100 undecided voters armed with questions for the suited-up political pugilists are in, and they’re interesting.
Albanese got the approval of 40% of those in the room for his conduct during the debate, while Morrison snaffled 35% of the audience vote.
A more interesting figure, however, that corroborates the broader electoral sentiment, is the number that still remains undecided.
There was 25% of those in the audience who were persuaded by neither leader’s poise, policy or messaging last night to the point where they were still unable to commit to a political party.
The cause for this was articulated in two questions towards the end of the People’s Forum, which was hosted by Sky News, about integrity and trust in politics. These questioners were reflecting a long-term trend in Australia and elsewhere that people were dissatisfied with the way democracy operates, and also the way politicians behave.
A questioner earlier in the evening also asked both leaders to talk about their plans for a national integrity commission or some form of an anti-corruption body.
The factor of integrity and honesty in the service of the community was one of the topics that attracted several questions in the middle of other questions on nursing and aged care, housing affordability, renewable energy, flood and disaster preparedness, national security — including boat turn backs, industrial relations, and sparks around the topic of whether the cashless debit card would be expanded more broadly to pensions, is telling.
An audience member quizzed after the event for feedback also indicated they had wanted to ask a question on student debt. One can only imagine what else could have been asked if the forum had gone on for longer.
It should be noted at this point that none of the questions asked by members of the audience consisted of pop quiz questions such as those that have been witnessed on the campaign trail. Each question reflected an underlying concern about policy matters and the behaviour of politicians in public life.
The issue of an anti-corruption commission will not go away, and the questions asked about it last night will only spur advocates for the introduction further because voters out there want a better standard of accountability from those in parliament.
The Mandarin has cited studies from the Australian National University and IPSOS previously that have shown people have grown dissatisfied with aspects of our democracy, annoyed by the fact there was a period when political parties changed leaders frequently, and also a perception that governments are in the business of serving their own self-interest and the interests of powerful people rather than working for the community.
This dissatisfaction has only grown over the period of the coronavirus pandemic, and experienced campaigners are nervous about what this means when it comes to the undecided vote going to political parties other than the Liberal-National Coalition, and the Labor Party.
A big issue for Morrison, however, was his response to a question from Katherine about her four-year-old autistic son Ethan and concerns over NDIS funding cuts.
“Jenny and I have been blessed with — we’ve got two children that don’t — haven’t had to go through that. And so the parents with children who are disabled, I can only try and understand your aspirations for those children,” Morrison said.
The PM has been accused by some punters of using offensive language with the terms ‘blessed’ and ‘disabled’.
Both Morrison and Albanese showed an inability to connect with some questioners at various times, and that was to be expected given those asking the questions were not the usual combatants.
Consider Daniel, the café owner, who had done it tough and was not eligible for JobKeeper payments during the pandemic like many other sole traders and contractors for whom work dried up fast when COVID hit.
Morrison’s answer focused on tax benefits the government had in place for business more generally, such as the instant asset write off and the drop in tax benefits, and the technology and training deductions that were put into the recent budget.
A core focus of Albanese’s answer was Labor’s quest to see wages increase that would give people more income to go and spend in cafes such as those run by Daniel.
The leaders clashed over the nature of the government’s suggested amendments to industrial relations legislation during the height of the pandemic.
There was not much in the response of either leader to Daniel’s question on small business policy that would give small business owners a decent steer on who they might vote for in the coming election.
Over the security deal just signed between China and the Solomon Islands, Morrison’s best attempt at defending the fact his government had been caught sleeping was to say Labor was on China’s side — a slur Albanese immediately described as outrageous.
Last night’s encounter was not so much a debate between the two leaders even given some of the feistiness that broke out from time to time. It was more a reckoning with ordinary people — the taxpayers who are going to be casting a vote on May 21 — and some of those are still not persuaded either leader is the answer to a maiden’s prayer.
Morrison and Albanese have a month to try to convince them otherwise.