Rooted – the failed ‘people’s forum’

The public doesn’t expect much from political debates anymore. It’s rare that someone will get caught out on their own words, or turn in a performance so woeful that people forget everything they say and focus on their lack of poise. For that, we have to turn to an interviewer of the calibre of Kerry O’Brien (who’s racking up an impressive list so far this campaign – Kevin Rudd, Joe Hockey, Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard all discomfited, tripped-up, and off-message). So it’s fair to say that expectations were not high about the so-called ‘People’s Forum’ held at the evocatively-named Rooty Hill RSL Club.

The idea was that Galaxy pollsters would randomly select 200 ‘undecided’ voters via phone calls, who would spend two hours grilling first Gillard, then Abbott. They’d get to ask their own questions, which apparently wouldn’t be vetted beforehand by either of the media organisations sponsoring the forum – Sky News and the Daily Telegraph.

Right about there was when the wheels fell off.

Of that 200, three were quickly ‘outed’ in the Twitterverse as committed Liberal voters or actual members of the Young Liberals. One even had a media profile confirming it – Joel, who was a former housemate on Channel Ten’s Big Brother reality show. Another was known to live well outside the Rooty Hill area, and yet another confided that he was ‘not really’ a swinging voter, but had participated in Galaxy focus groups because he enjoyed the work.

This took less than 15 minutes to discover by ordinary people watching and commenting online. Why couldn’t Galaxy find out the same thing? Did they do any background work at all on their chosen group?

Four out of 200 with dodgy backgrounds? That’s not much, you might think. These weren’t just audience members, though. They were up at the microphone questioning Gillard and Abbott.

And about those questions.

Sky said repeatedly last night that they had no part in selecting what would be asked – in fact, no one did. They would have us believe that they allowed people to simply file up to the microphone and say whatever was on their minds. In a live broadcast. No mechanism in place to prevent obscenity, outright abuse, wingnuttery or any one of a dozen possible problems.

Maybe they did. But maybe they should have done. Because what we got was a series of very hard questions thrown at Gillard. Here’s a sample, stripped of preamble:

* Are the people who orchestrated the ‘knifing’ of Rudd going to be rewarded in government?
* What responsibility do you bear for the failure of the ETS, insulation and BER? (The ETS turned up twice.)
* Where’s the money coming from? (This one turned up twice).
* Can you give a guarantee you won’t backflip on your promises?
* How can you guarantee you’ll stay a full term as Prime Minister?

It’s worth singling out two questioners in particular. One was a young woman extraordinarily well-informed on legal issues, who hammered Gillard on the question of same-sex marriage. She quoted Act after Act to illustrate how nonsensical the major parties’ position was, and finished up with the bitter observation, ‘The Bible says we can’t have sex, and you ignore that, but you won’t let us marry’.

The other was a woman who took issue with the Labor ads featuring footage of former Treasurer Peter Costello express his opinion that Abbott did not understand economic issues. ‘We know it isn’t true,’ she said. ‘Peter Costello went on Sky News and said it wasn’t true. That’s blatantly dishonest … if you have no integrity on this, how can I give you my vote?’ She remained unconvinced when told that the entire series of quotes were freely available would confirm that Costello was not taken out of context.

At least some of the questions appeared to have been very well-written – even to the point of using well-worn phrases common to Liberal tirades against Labor. It’s possible that was a coincidence.

But then there were the questions they asked Abbott:

*How bad will it be if Labor gets an ETS?
* Why would it be good for me to vote Liberal? (This came from the Big Brother Young Liberal.)
* How are your policies superior to Labor’s?
* Why shouldn’t private enterprise build a broadband network with some help from government? (This questioner substantially restated the Coalition’s announced policy.)
* Superclinics are bad, so what will you do about primary health care?

These are incredibly ‘soft’ questions. Most people commenting online described them as ‘Dorothy Dixers’ – referring to the parliamentary practice of giving leading questions to backbenchers so that Ministers can spruik their own achievements and lambaste the Opposition. Having watched innumerable hours of Question Time, I can confirm that the questions Abbott received were suspiciously similar to Dixers.

He received one apparently tricky question on the subject of asylum seekers. ‘They’re not illegal … why would you treat them with a lack of compassion?’ She received some applause for this, but Abbott’s answer – that it’s really about treat people smugglers as criminals – was much more warmly received. It seems Abbott’s ‘love the sinner but hate the sin’ argument goes over well in western Sydney – which makes me wonder just how hard that question really was.

Many people online wondered if Abbott would get the same harsh treatment on same-sex marriage as Gillard. He didn’t. The questioner, who had been seated in the front row, was nowhere to be seen for much of his session. She did try to talk to him afterwards, but he brushed her off.

The whole forum had the atmosphere of a US Tea Party – thoroughly astroturfed, from start to finish. There were just enough people in there who weren’t in step to make it look authentic, but viewers are more politically-savvy these days, and quickly smelled a rat.

It’s fair to say that Sky was barraged complaints via emails and tweets during and after the forum. The commentators afterwards were at pains to point out that Sky had nothing to do with choosing either the participants or the questions. There was clearly some embarrassment about Joel’s appearance, but that’s as far as it went.

Online, speculation is still running hot that the whole forum was a set-up. The two media organisations involved were both owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose support for conservative politicians is notorious. (We’re talking about the man who owns Fox News in the US, after all.) Abbot’s questions appeared to have been written by the same people who prepare Dorothy Dixers in Parliament, and Gillard’s appeared to have come straight out of the Coalition’s attack-politics playbook.
There were even suggestions that Galaxy was part of the conspiracy.

I don’t think it’s necessary to look for shadowy deals in back rooms. Never ascribe to malice what can be adequately explained by incompetence, after all. Galaxy either didn’t cast its net wide enough (given the inclusion of experienced focus group participants) or simply took people at their word when they said they were ‘undecided’. Certainly, they appear to have done no background research. Someone should also have vetted the questions, to ensure a ‘soft-hard’ mix for both leaders.

Admittedly, it’s difficult to find really undecided voters at this late stage of the campaign. It’s also difficult to tell if someone is lying about their political affiliations to get selected. This is why there should have been background checks. It only took minutes to find Joel, after all. Ditto on the questions: the imbalance was so obvious that even my self-confessed ‘politically naive’ friend was spluttering with indignation. If there was an astroturfing attempt in progress, at least something could have been done to prevent it.

So maybe it was just a monumental screw-up. But it was somewhat alarming to find that an email had been sent to the tweeter who exposed two Liberal supporters, demanding that the relevant tweets be immediately deleted unless they could provide ‘photographic evidence’. it seems someone was watching the Twitter feed and moving quickly to squash this story. Apparently that ‘someone’ doesn’t really understand Twitter – there had already been numerous re-tweets of the original information, and the same thing happened to the ‘take-down’ announcement.

I leave speculation on who that ‘someone’ was to you.

The media have universally declared a ‘win’ for Abbott, and Sky is congratulating itself on a job well done. Personally, I feel confident in declaring a complete loss. The forum should have been a vehicle for people to access their politicians directly – people who aren’t part of political parties, or the media, or lobby groups. The participants were supposed to be our representatives from across the political spectrum, asking the questions we wanted to hear about issues of real concern. Instead we got a well-scripted and decidely partisan staged event, at which we heard nothing new and were thoroughly disenfranchised.

It was a lot like Question Time, really. A failure – from start to finish.

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