Quiz Time on the Campaign Trail

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During the first week of the federal election campaign, politicians have been asked about: the price of bread, milk and petrol; the JobSeeker rate; the wage price index; the cash rate; the unemployment rate, and more.

We still have five weeks to go, and I’m already exhausted.

When the opposition leader, Anthony Albanese failed to correctly name the cash rate and unemployment rate on the first day of the campaign, it prompted widespread media coverage, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison seized on the opportunity to label his opponent as weak on the economy. Other politicians received pop quizzes on various other prices and statistics over the next two days, before it all screeched to a halt on Wednesday, when the Greens leader, Adam Bandt, excoriated the news media after being asked for the wage price index.

“Google it,” he responded, adding: “Politics should be about reaching for the stars and offering a better society. And instead, there’s these questions that are asked about — can you tell us this particular stat or can you tell us that particular stat.”

In an election campaign that so far seems lacking in big-picture vision, the episode has fueled debate about the value of so-called gotcha questions. Should any aspiring prime minister be able to recite these figures to show they have a good understanding of the country they want to lead, or do such questions just get in the way of better, higher-level political debate?

Speaking about Albanese’s blunder on Monday, Andrea Carson, a political scientist at La Trobe University and the creator of the Below the Line election podcast, put it in a different category than a gotcha question devised to catch a politician out. Instead, it spoke to a lack of preparedness on the part of Labor to anticipate attacks from an opposition eager to paint it as weak on the economy, she said.

“It wasn’t so much about the gotcha moment, it was the lack of pre-emption,” she said. “In one moment Albanese undid any good work they could have done in that space by feeding into the narrative that Labor can’t be trusted on the economy.”

Elections have been lost in the past because of such own-goal blunders before, she added. In 1993, when Liberal opposition leader John Hewson wasn’t able to explain whether his proposed goods and services tax policy would increase or decrease the price of a birthday cake, it “made it look like he didn’t understand the policy he was campaigning on — and that was his election to lose.”

More recently, the Labor opposition leader Mark Latham’s infamous handshake in 2004 turned voters off with its aggression, she added.

Those were both “a seminal moment in the campaign that sort of sums up how that election campaign went,” said Carson, the political scientist. It’s yet to be seen whether Albanese’s moment will have the same impact.

“Every election, there’s at least one gotcha fail,” said Paul Williams, an associate professor and political expert at Griffith University. Though they usually have quite a short life, he added, Bill Shorten’s gaffe during the 2019 election campaign, when he mistakenly ruled out introducing new taxes on superannuation, in contradiction to his party’s policy, “did tend to frame his campaign. It did injure his campaign quite significantly.”

While it was understandable that swing voters would be critical of Albanese’s blunder, he said, they should also know that “this doesn’t define the party or his potential to be a prime minister, because prime ministers are chairs of cabinets and are responsible for policy. Prime ministers have become big-picture guardians.”

And as much as the episode shows that Labor should have been better prepared, he said, there’s also something to be said for the idea that we should aspire to a better quality of political debate.

We all contribute to it, he says: the journalists who ask the gotcha questions, because they’re short on time or know that’s what will attract clicks and views; the politicians and their spin doctors who protect “themselves so carefully with garrisons of PR that journalists have to ask those sorts of questions to break through”; and voters who respond to gotcha questions and horse-race framing and see the election as a personality contest rather than a contest between two parties’ policies.

“We’re all to blame,” Williams said. “We all need to lift the political debate.”

Now for this week’s stories.

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