Murderboarding .. and other things politicians do to succeed

What it really takes to get our leaders ready for an election debate

By Erin Mathews. Election Watch Journalist

Election debates tend to go one of two ways – they’re either a spectacular series of gaffes, or the performances feel scripted within an inch of life. What they should be, but rarely are, is a contest of ideas and, to give our politicians some credit here, an awful lot of effort goes into trying to achieve that.

One preparation technique is murderboarding: relentlessly prosecuting all the worst-case scenarios; preparing for the most difficult or outrageously possible questions and going through the most disastrous ways to answer them.

But the rather threateningly-named technique is not as intense in reality as it sounds. "It's not like 'The West Wing' at all!” insists Sally Branson, a former senior adviser to former Prime Minister Tony Abbott and now State Director of the National Party in Victoria.

Branson honed her murderboarding skills at the US Embassy as a Media Affairs Specialist for the former ambassador to Australia, Jeffrey Bleich, and brought the experience to the Prime Minister’s office. “This is, I think, a very American technique,” she explains, “we used to do it a lot in the embassy.”

Branson says with Mr Abbott, the murderboarding was never as serious as the name implies. “If he was going to be giving a big speech or a keynote address at a very significant event and there would be a significant Q and A afterwards (and I worked in a ministerial office as well) there would be a process of going through topics of portfolio interest, worst case scenario, what could be a trick question.”

Now, working on the National Party campaign in Victoria Branson says the same principles apply. “Because it’s a small team, it’s not to the degree of a murderboard, but if I’m helping someone prepare for an interview I will always ask the worst case scenario questions and I think it’s a good base to work from. What do they say? .. 'Hope for the best and prepare for the worst!'"

“Debate preparation is seen as more a chore than exciting opportunity,” admits a Labor veteran who’s been involved in briefing federal and state leaders for debates. “It's quite demanding. The staff will be specifically tasked with the early work, so for debate prep that means who’s doing the ‘pack’. It’s a bit like a set of Question Time packs, preparing the notes for offence, but also working up the potential incomings - so things that your opponent would say, how he responds and conversely the points that we want to be pursuing. That in itself, getting it right, is a lot of work because you prepare for everything but you only end up using a small part of it.”

One similarity to 'The West Wing' is the mock debate. The senior Labor source says the bravest in the room will play the role of the opponent and take the leader to task. “Typically it would be senior politicians or senior staff who plays the opponent and they’ll do a full run through or two of the debate and then they’ll also obviously do a lot of work on the opening and closing statements.”

Once it comes to debate night “nothing’s left to chance,” says Dr Andrea Carson, who teaches media and politics at the University of Melbourne. “Their advisers will be making sure they’re standing the right way, that they’re wearing the right clothes; that their mannerisms aren’t too aggressive and that they use every question that comes their way, particularly the ones that they may not have seen in advance; that they’re able to use bridging phrases to get onto their stump speech and to articulate the messages that they really care about.”

Branson isn’t so particular. “As a punter when you watch a debate and you see someone freeze under pressure or forget their train of thought, I think if you were looking upon a stage and there’s 200 people in the audience, you’d think, ‘oh well, they’re having a bad day’ or ‘God, I’d do exactly the same thing if I was up there’. Stuff like that is forgivable and it’s also very human. Chucking a tantrum or getting nasty and personal is very base level and I think that’s where the real errors come from.

“I think coming from the National Party and coming from a rural area, I really like to see that there are some rough edges around politicians. I think if you look at the rise of some independent Senators, some of that roughness resonates with their electorates. It might not resonate with the political staffer.”

So after all the mock debates and murderboards, does the winner of an election debate benefit from it? “Research shows that it tends to reinforce the viewpoints that the audience already had rather than switching votes,” says Carson. “Swinging voters usually don’t move based on the debate but if they already have a positive view about a candidate it will reinforce that viewpoint.”

Image credit: Frank Taillandier/Flickr


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