Facebook debate for Australian election: Opposition leader Bill Shorten gets more 'likes'

Audience and pundits say Shorten beat PM Turnbull; debate unlikely to sway many voters

Mr Turnbull (left) and Mr Shorten (right) with moderator Joe Hildebrand during last night's debate, which was live-streamed via Facebook Live and broadcast on television. The Australian election will be held on July 2.
Mr Turnbull (left) and Mr Shorten (right) with moderator Joe Hildebrand during last night's debate, which was live-streamed via Facebook Live and broadcast on television. The Australian election will be held on July 2.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Australia's opposition leader Bill Shorten was last night named the surprise winner of the country's first "Facebook debate" after a free-flowing online duel against Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Just a fortnight ahead of the federal election on July 2, the rival leaders faced a range of questions from a live audience and from people posting on Facebook.

The one-hour debate was live- streamed  via Facebook Live - including real-time public comments - and broadcast on television.

Despite his underdog status, Mr Shorten, the Labor leader, appeared to benefit from the questions, which focused on issues such as education, mental health, same-sex marriage and the rights of workers.

A poll of the 30 audience members - who were undecided voters from tightly fought seats - found 17 believed Mr Shorten was the winner, seven favoured Mr Turnbull and the remainder were undecided.

Mr Shorten, a former union leader, took the fight to the Prime Minister, attacking his weaker climate change targets and his plan to cut company taxes. Labor says the tax cuts will cost A$50 billion (S$49 million) which should be spent on health, education and infrastructure.

Promising to ensure minimum university funding of A$10,800 per student per year, Mr Shorten said: "The idea that somehow you can be an innovation nation without being an education nation is political rubbish."

In contrast, Mr Turnbull, a former Internet entrepreneur and investment banker, stuck to his campaign mantra of "stronger economic growth and more jobs".

Most pundits suggested Mr Shorten was the winner.

"Mr Shorten seemed a little cranky," wrote political commentator Adam Gartrell on Fairfax Media websites. "He was short with Mr Turnbull and (the moderator), sometimes snarky - but the crowd seemed to like that he showed a bit of mongrel."

Mr Malcolm Farr, a political commentator for news.com.au, which co-hosted the debate, wrote on the website that Mr Shorten "was able to enter his opponent's territory and succeed".

"It wasn't just a matter of nimbleness and speed," he wrote. "Mr Shorten stuck to the Labor script with a practised determination honed over the many weeks of this campaign so far. Mr Turnbull was more discursive and at times defensive."

The different approaches of the two leaders were particularly evident from their contrasting responses when asked to outline their vision for the nation.

Mr Turnbull attempted to present a bright future for Australia based on a strong economy buoyed by emerging technology and the nation's proximity to Asia.

"The opportunities are huge," he said. "Half of the world's middle class will be living to our north in Asia. We can do anything but we've got to be innovative, got to be competitive, got to be productive."  

In contrast, Mr Shorten responded by outlining a long list of Labor policies aimed at improving health, education and welfare.

 "I want to make sure that every school is a great school, properly resourced, so kids get the best start in life," he said. "I want to make sure that working parents, especially working mums, get relief from the cost of childcare... I want to make sure people... are paid properly."

The unusual format of the debate - the third and probably the last of the campaign - allowed for a lively contest. The two previous debates involved a panel of journalists and a town-hall-style forum.

However, the debate is unlikely to shift a substantial number of voters. Opinion polls show Labor is currently even or slightly ahead of the Coalition, but Mr Turnbull is hanging on to his lead as preferred prime minister. Betting agencies show the Coalition is a strong favourite to win - and most commentators believe there is little sign of widespread voter dissatisfaction or anger at the government.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2016, with the headline 'Facebook debate: More 'likes' for Labor leader'. Subscribe