PM reminded of promise on debates

The Gillard's government's pledge to set up an independent body to organise federal election debates seems to have fallen into the ''black hole of good intentions'', independent MP Rob Oakeshott says.

Both Mr Oakeshott and the Greens are pushing for Labor to deliver on its commitment to establish a ''leaders' debates commission'', saying time is running out with just five months until the official federal election campaign starts on August 12.

The establishment of the commission was part of the agreements Labor made with the Greens, Mr Oakeshott and independent Tony Windsor in 2010, in order to form government.

The commission would be an independent body charged with setting the dates and structure of debates during federal elections - taking the issue away from party politicking - and similar to the Commission on Presidential Debates in the United States.

Fairfax Media believes that at the end of last year, the government was considering a model in which the National Press Club would host debates, with questioning from Canberra press gallery journalists.

Ms Gillard said in January it was a ''good idea'' to sort out the issue, but there has been little detail about progress or the proposed model. Asked for an update on the commission, a spokesman for Special Minister of State Gary Gray said: ''The issue is under active consideration.''

Mr Oakeshott said he asked the government about the matter last week but had not seen anything in detail. He said that without the commission, there was ''every chance'' there would only be one debate at the next election or none at all.

Frustrated with the rate of progress, the Greens are launching an online petition to pressure Labor to fast-track the idea, while calling on the government to ensure the Greens are included in at least one of three debates. Greens leader Christine Milne has also written to the Prime Minister to ask her if she is going to honour the spirit of the agreement.

Visiting research fellow at Sydney University's Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, Nick Rowley, said it was critical that an independent process be established, so the decision about when debates were held and how they were conducted was taken out of the hands of the major parties.

Mr Rowley - who has also been adviser to Bob Carr and former British prime minister Tony Blair - said Australia needed a body that would make sure the debates were thoroughly researched and went beyond the ''usual suspects''.

Pointing to the US approach, Mr Rowley said debates should be at least 1½ hours long and each built around a different theme. He also said Australia could make use of live online fact checking, as was done in the Obama-Romney debates last year.

''It's about keeping the bastards honest,'' he said.

This story PM reminded of promise on debates first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.