Craig puts a good case forward for taking leaders debates seriously. After all, not only do the debates ‘provide sites of dialogue and critique in a news culture increasingly focused on photo opportunities and sound-bites and in the context of election campaigns’ (p.51), but ‘commentary, debate and poll responses play a major role in framing the outcomes and meanings of encounters between political candidates. Leaders’ debates and interviews serve important functions in the narrative of election campaigns: they can highlight the policy terrain’ (pp.52-53). What’s more, there’s a lot that is wrong with contemporary leaders debates:
Leaders’ debates and political interviews can be criticised for their overly staged formats and predictable communicative strategies, their strongly combative interaction, and their emphasis on individual leadership and style over interrogation of policy and political ideas (p.51).
And overall, ‘Leaders’ debates and interviews contribute to the increasing ‘presidentialisation’ of election campaigns’ (p.52). Despite this, Craig says that ‘New Zealand has been well served by leaders’ debates throughout its recent political history, particularly on a comparative basis’ (p.53). He points out, for example, that the UK ‘does not have leaders’ debates, Australia in recent elections has held only one leaders’ debate at the beginning of the election campaign’ (p.53). Yet a decline might be apparent in terms of the quantity of debates in New Zealand: there were 7 in 2002, 5 in 2005, and only 4 in 2008.
Struggle over debate configurations
It is common for political parties to struggle over the important details of televised leaders debates. Things such as the appropriate number of debates, their timing and format can all play a crucial part in advantaging certain parties or candidates. One of the main features of the 2008 leaders debates was the fact that Labour and National conspired to block the minor political parties from participation in the debates with them. Clearly both parties were equally responsible for this major change, but who actually instigated and pushed the idea? Craig provides the answer:
TV3 news and current affairs director Mark Jennings claimed Helen Clark talked Key into the debate boycott (Gower 2008a) but the Prime Minister stated the agreement was made at chief-of-staff level and that she could not recall who initiated the decision, saying that it was ‘lost in the mists of time’ (Gower 2008b). It is understood, however, that it was National who first approached Labour about only engaging in debates between the two major parties (p.55).
So, was Labour wise to go along with National’s proposal? Possible not. Craig outlines how ‘The most significant political effect of the televised leaders’ debates of the 2008 New Zealand election campaign was that they provided Opposition leader John Key a platform to demonstrate his status as a viable alternative Prime Ministerial candidate’ (p.53). Furthermore, Key did well ‘to challenge aggressively and interrupt Clark in a bid to counteract the Labour leader’s persistence in debate exchanges. Key’s strategy was in marked contrast to Don Brash’s performance in the 2005 election debates’ (p.59). Craig also observes that this ‘strategy was politically effective because the aggressiveness of his interventions was often softened by his use of ‘humour.’ (p.60).
But did it all actually matter that much? Craig concludes by saying that campaigns have a reinforcing role rather than a transforming role on public opinion:
The 2008 New Zealand election campaign, as well as the 2007 Australian federal election, seemed to underscore the limited effects of campaigning on the ultimate electoral outcome. In both elections, campaigns did not substantially alter public opinion that long-serving governments would be discarded for opposition parties fronted by comparatively inexperienced leaders (p.71).
Geoffrey Craig is a senior lecturer in the Department of Politics at the University of Otago. He is the author of The Media, Politics and Public Life and the co-author of Slow Living. Dr Craig has published on topics such as news media interviews, leaders’ debates, environmental communication and lifestyle politics.
Informing Voters? Politics, Media and the New Zealand Election 2008, edited by Chris Rudd, Janine Hayward and Geoff Craig
Published by Pearson Education, 2009.
More information here.
Table Of Contents
1. Introduction: Mediated Politics - Geoffrey Craig, Janine Hayward, Chris Rudd
2. Party Strategy and the 2008 Election - Bryce Edwards
3. The Election Campaign on Television News - Margie Comrie
4. Leaders’ Debates and News Media Interviews - Geoffrey Craig
5. ‘Vote for me’: Political Advertising - Claire Robinson
6. Newspaper Coverage - Chris Rudd and Janine Hayward
7. The Maori Party and Newspaper Coverage - Ann Sullivan
8. Online Media - Peter John Chen
9. Conclusion: Don’t shoot the messenger? - Geoffrey Craig, Janine Hayward and Chris Rudd