Debate fatigue is setting in. Over-exposure, an imperfect system, and a dose of post-truth politics makes it hard to get excited, writes Laura Walters

In rejecting calls for election debates in the UK during her premiership, Margaret Thatcher argued: “We’re not electing a president, we’re choosing a government.”

Anyone who watched the US presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden would be glad we’re not currently facing the selection of a president.

When a fly on a vice-president’s head is the most interesting thing in a debate; or when presidential nominees bully and bicker – you know something’s gone wrong.

New Zealand’s not there yet, but this election’s rounds of leaders’ debates shows the same issues: a mix of boring and bizarre, with a heavy dose of debate fatigue.

Thatcher’s idea that televised election debates – which she saw as focusing on party leaders and not the wider party platform – are not suited to parliamentary democracy, isn’t entirely correct.

Democracies, including New Zealand, have a long history of televised candidate debates.

In countries emerging from periods of undemocratic rule, or where the political discourse is dominated by one side, they can be benchmarks of a healthy, maturing democracy.

Around the world, people see debates as an indication of an open and transparent election process, where candidates stand on equal footing, and voters can see politicians address issues they care about.

A good debate allows voters to compare and contrast leaders’ policy positions, personalities, and values. A good moderator can put them under pressure to directly address a question, it forces them to go on the record, and that record can be used to hold leaders to account.

Debates can serve an important purpose in modern democratic systems.

But it’s hard to see how the leaders’ debates from this year’s New Zealand election have added much to the democratic, or political, landscape.

With the next three years up our sleeves, it would be worth reconsidering how we do election debates, who’s included; how they’re moderated; whether there’s a more effective way to fact-check; and what we’re actually trying to achieve.

Following the third leaders’ debate, Steve Braunias wrote: “All roads lead to October 17.”

In declaring death the winner (“the promise of eternal sleep was so very strong as the broadcast dragged on”), Braunias perfectly articulated my feeling of debate fatigue.

They have become tiresome and disappointing. I lamented with my friends about what election debates used to be: an exciting fixture in the campaign calendar. 

It seems this fatigue has washed over a nation that’s endured a series of lengthy leaders’ debates, as well as multi-party debates, finance debates, youth debates, cannabis debates, euthanasia debates, education debates and agriculture debates.

They weren’t all bad (no doubt I missed some), but there are only so many political debates a country can take.

This fatigue is further fuelled by a climate of extreme overexposure to political leaders thanks to an extended election campaign, neverending social media videos, and months of Jacinda Ardern’s daily Covid-19 briefings.

If New Zealand does decide to review debate formats, and figure out what audiences want and need, we shouldn’t look to the US for an example. Photo: Getty Images

In an effort to keep their eyes open, voters focused on whatever excitement was on offer.

Audiences became most animated when the events took on a feeling of a reality television show… Quickfire! 

Or when overly light-handed moderation saw the leaders talking over each other for extended periods – something that was too close to the Trump-Biden spectacle for comfort.

But as Massey University’s Grant Duncan said, those fun-to-watch debates misrepresent how New Zealand elections work.

Kiwis don’t vote for prime ministers; they vote for representatives — one local representative, and one party of representatives. And now we see why Thatcher was so keen to keep the American system at a distance.

On the flipside, when candidates are flat, or talk vaguely about policy without any personality, they’re declared the loser – as was the case for Ardern in the first debate.

So hungry are we for conflict in the debating arena, a not-insignificant group of political commentators were happy to declare the unrelentingly scrappy Judith Collins the winner of all three debates – despite her foray into post-truth politics.

Of course both sides exaggerated and twisted truths, and Ardern has rightfully been called out for her misleading claims. But Collins made false claims about when New Zealand and Samoa shut their borders due to Covid-19 on two occasions – once after being corrected.

Without a small army of fact-checkers, like those currently deployed by the New York Times for the US election, it’s hard for those watching at home to sort fact from fiction.

Some (probably fatigued) political commentators struggled so much to declare the victor, they said democracy was the winner on the day. A strange conclusion given the openly false claims.

Good democratic processes should be about more than politicians showing up on the day, and having a crack at each other. We are within our rights to expect more from the leaders, the moderators, and the debates.

Many people would have already made up their minds, and in some cases voted, when the last of the debates go to air. And the general consensus is debates don’t inform which way people vote.

But research shows election debates do help some people decide who they’re going to vote for, especially those sitting on the fence.

They’re an especially important part of the election campaign for those who haven’t spent the lead-up to election day absorbing news, reckons and party promotion on social media.

If we want democracy to be the winner on the day, we need to figure out how to strike a balance between the sleep-inducing and the spectacular.

We have three years to redesign what should be an exciting and important campaign fixture. And when we do, we shouldn’t look to the United States for the plan.

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