‘Everything to lose’: As polling day nears, the debate stakes skyrocket

Days before the previous state election, then-premier Gladys Berejiklian and challenger Michael Daley faced off at a people’s forum-style debate in the key western Sydney seat of Penrith. It was written off as a disaster for Daley – the final nail in the coffin of a bad campaign.

Under pressure from moderator David Speers, the Labor leader could not confirm the cost of his school and TAFE policies. In the moments after that awkward exchange, Berejiklian’s advisers noticed her glance at them in the crowd, with a satisfied look that said: “Can you believe that?”

The debate between Gladys Berejiklian and Michael Daley was reported as a significant win for the then-premier.

Wolter Peeters

On the Labor side, there was resignation. A bad week – in which the Liberal Party dirt unit scored a huge hit against Daley with video of him saying Asians with PhDs were taking young people’s jobs – had turned into a nightmare. “That was the end,” one adviser recalls.

For leaders and their teams, debates are fraught with danger. Few voters will watch them live, even in prime time. The candidate who is deemed to “win” gets a quick sugar-hit news story. But if they stuff up, it has the potential to generate negative coverage that rolls on for days.

On Wednesday, Premier Dominic Perrottet and Opposition Leader Chris Minns will square off in a debate hosted by the and Nine. With just 10 sleeps to go, voters are paying more attention, and every indication is the election will be tight.

Labor consistently leads the published surveys. The ’s February poll with Resolve Strategic put Labor’s primary vote on an election-winning 38 per cent compared to the Coalition’s 32 per cent. If that were replicated on polling day it would represent a 10-point collapse from the 2019 election for the government.

Labor Opposition Leader Chris Minns and Liberal Premier Dominic Perrottet have already faced off on Nine’s 2GB radio.

Dominic Lorrimer

But the opposition needs to win 11 seats for a majority: a big ask. It could possibly form minority government by snagging five or six. The “teal” independents running in Liberal-held seats are big wildcards.

In that environment, and with early voting opening on Saturday, the stakes of this debate are high. Veteran Labor strategist Bruce Hawker says at this stage of a campaign, it’s all about building – or destroying – momentum. The person leading – Minns, based on the polls – “has everything to lose”.

“If you make a mistake or you’re ambushed by the other person, things can go very badly wrong,” Hawker says. “The general advice is if you’ve got to have a debate when you’re leading the polls, have them as far out as you can from the election day.”

Meanwhile, Perrottet, who claimed underdog status at his campaign launch on Sunday, “hasn’t done a bad job of getting back into the game … he’s got everything to gain in the last couple of weeks”, Hawker says.

The Herald and Nine debate will be moderated by Nine News’ Peter Overton, and the leaders will be grilled by Nine reporter Liz Daniels, the Herald’s Alexandra Smith, and Chris O’Keefe from 2GB.

James Brickwood

The Labor campaigner has seen a few hairy debates in his time. He was in that (very hot) room in Penrith for Daley’s debacle in 2019, and immediately knew they were in damage-control mode.

“That debate did leave a bad impression on the public. [It] became a huge issue as far as the media were concerned … the momentum that had been building up around various issues just faded into the background,” Hawker says.

Given all the dirt thrown at Daley, it’s difficult to say how much the debate itself factored into the election result. Berejiklian also faltered, and needed to correct the record on an answer shortly after the debate. But for undecided voters, Daley’s stumbles may have played into the perception that he wasn’t quite ready for the job.

It wouldn’t have mattered so much if it happened at the start of the campaign, Hawker says. “It was the timing that was the issue.”

In 1997, Hawker was on the other side of the equation, having orchestrated a debate masterstroke for South Australian opposition leader Mike Rann. Labor dropped a leaked South Australian Treasury document canvassing a state-based GST to Nine, which was hosting the debate in the campaign’s final week.

According to Rann, the leak destabilised the debate and the Liberal campaign. The John Olsen-led Liberals, having come to power in a landslide just four years earlier, lost their majority and were forced into minority government.

While debates always centre on policy – with occasional questions of character thrown in – leaders don’t use them to make announcements, and they tend to shy away from complicated detail. The subsequent coverage of debates tends to focus on their manner, style and tactics – or mistakes.

“You hear about how they missed the mark or they had a gaffe,” says Scott Morrison’s former media director Andrew Carswell, who now runs Canberra-based lobby shop Headline Advisory. “Not many people watch debates, but they read about it for the next couple of days.”

Morrison put in an impressive performance against Anthony Albanese during their first televised debate last year, a Sky News people’s forum, but it was his clumsy response to the mother of an autistic child that generated the headlines.

By contrast, Carswell says winning a debate doesn’t necessarily move the dial. But it peps up the leader and the team amid a tough, relentless campaign. “It makes you hit the ground running the next morning,” he says. “It fuels the tank.”

( Information from politico.com was used in this report. Also if you have any problem of this article or if you need to remove this articles, please email here and we will delete this immediately. [email protected] )

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