LUKE MARTIN
As clearly the two most high profile and leading candidates in this bi-election, the only thing either Vanessa Goodwin or Honey Bacon achieve by participating in this debate is to boost the profile of their lesser known opponents. James Crotty’s debate proposal has already generated media coverage for him and his campaign and no doubt if the debates goes ahead is will generate further media coverage for all the candidates who participate, including the lesser known candidates who will otherwise struggle to get any media exposure throughout the campaign in their own right.

It’s actually in Mrs Bacon and Ms Goodwin’s interests, as easily the two best known candidates in this election with significant name recognition in the electorate, for this debate to flop and for the election campaign to proceed with few, if any, occasions when all candidates are brought together on the same stage. Sorry, but name recognition is King, or Queen, in Tasmanian politics and there is absolutely no political up-side for either Goodwin or Bacon’s campaigns for their candidate to participate in anything that could generate media or electorate exposure for their lesser known opponents.

I’m guessing the only way either Goodwin or Bacon will end up participating in a pre-election debate is if there is now sufficient media and public pressure on them to participate in either this Richard Herr debate, or if the ABC ends up running its only pre-election debate, in which case Tim Cox would be merciless on any candidate who did a no show.

This all goes to the heart of a problem with Tasmanian democracy. At all levels – Federal, State Election and even our local councils – we need to have an opportunity to hear from all our candidates for public office together on the same stage in an independent and properly structured and moderated debate format.

How appalling is it that before the last State Election we did not have one single public leader’s debate featuring all three party leaders to give Tasmanians the opportunity to hear from our alternate Premiers? The story that ultimately came out seems to be that Labor pulled out on the proposed ABC Stateline debate apparently because they did not think Peg Putt should have been included in the forum alongside Hidding and Lennon as an alternate Premier. The ABC wouldn’t budge on wanting to include Putt, so the whole thing was called off and Tasmanians missed out on a leader’s debate, one of the basic foundations of modern democratic elections. Who the hell are the ABC and the ALP to decide on who can or can not participate in our one leaders’ debate anyway?

But it is not just at a premiership level where this is a problem. I don’t think I’ve been to a single public pre-election debate or forum in Tasmania attended by candidates representing all the three major parties. The only debates that seem to get cross-party support are either those organised by an interest or lobby group, which are inevitably dominated by a specific issue or who already have a particular agenda in place, or when the media organise it, which also often has a different agenda on these matters to what might be in the best interests of the voting public.

So there is a strong argument for Tasmania – and indeed Australia- to have an independent election debate authority to organise and regulate official election debates as is the case in the USA. An independent election debate authority or debate commissioner would be appointed under an act of parliament with responsibility for organizing official public debates between candidates for all elections – state, local and federal – held in Tasmania. This debate authority, or commission or whatever, would be responsible for appointing moderators, make a ruling on the structure and format of debates and make a final ruling on who participates in the debate and how.

I imagine it would work like the electoral commission where the political parties, candidates and the general public can make submissions on the rules and then have an avenue to direct their queries and seek rulings on issues with the debates as they emerge. The authority would also have a budget for organizing the debates in a public place and ensuring the debates are appropriately advertised in the community. It would organise forums for local government elections and even be available to help public companies and community organisations to hold their own candidate forums and debates before their organisational elections, as is the case now with the electoral commission running their poll.

Of course, even with an independent debate authority we could still never actually force any candidate or party to participate in a debate and we would still have a lot of the same issues as we do now about candidates choosing to boycott or ignore debates for whatever reason. However, at least we would have a trusted, credible and independent public authority to ensure that when election debates are held, they are structured and run in the interests of democracy and the voting public and not any one particular candidate or agenda. This would have to increase candidate’s participation in debates and enhance the community’s confidence in these debates.

I recognise what I am proposing would add an extra level of bureaucracy and cost to something that in an ideal world and in an ideal democracy would already be happening, but the fact is in Tasmanian today, good quality election debates are just not happening and our democracy is all the poorer because of this.