The leaders debate last night was a bit of a flop. Its best bit was Mr Abbott’s short message at the end, picking up Mr Rudd’s reiterated ‘new way’ phrase, and turning it, simply and well, to his own advantage: if you want a ‘new way’ then vote for the Coalition. Otherwise Mr Rudd outspoke, out-gestured and out-interrupted his opponent. Whether it did him any good no one can tell.
Once again you could see his great strengths in fluent speech and quick recall. You could also see why many people do not trust him — he is such a salesman, so confident, never wrong, rarely without his smile and his passion — ‘I am passionate about X, I am passionate about Y…’ Is there anything that he is not passionate about? And he uses the first person pronoun in the singular much too often. So much of what he said was just about him. At least Mr Abbott did talk about his team. I was glad when the hour was over.
The policy items on the debate’s agenda were the economy, taxes, the boats and climate change. I doubt that either of the leaders won votes from their presentations. On the economy Mr Rudd claimed credit for Australia’s having avoided the GFC, while Mr Abbott pointed out that Mr Rudd had, after all, inherited an excellent economy. Taxes? Mr Rudd waved the GST increase flag, and Mr Abbott said there would be no change in the GST. Honours even.
‘The boats’? Given that Mr Rudd has in effect adopted the core element of the Howard Government’s policy Mr Abbott could not really object, but managed to say that his government would salvage what was possible from the Labor Government’s new policy. Asked whether or not Mr Rudd would now concede that he had been wrong in abandoning Howard’s ‘Pacific solution’ the Prime Minister said simply that this was the policy he had put to the people, and on which he had been elected. Things had changed in the world, and he thought that one of them was a civil war in Sri Lanka. I rather thought that had been going on for twenty years or so. But honours even again.
I also thought climate change was rapidly receding from the political agenda, but apparently not. None of the questioners was impolite enough to remind Mr Rudd that he had once described it as ‘the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our generation’, but Mr Abbott was reminded that he had said, at the National Press Club, that climate change was real and was happening and that we had to so something about it. Would he keep to his commitment to reduce emissions and work with other nations to combat this evil? Or something like like that.
Mr Abbott was careful to point out that most other countries were backing off from carbon taxes and things like the ETS, so there was little likelihood of any real global agreement. Nonetheless he would strive to reduce emissions, as he said he would. Plainly, having said he would end the carbon tax, he thinks that’s enough — and that there are still plenty of voters out there who think we should be doing something, so that returning to his much earlier remake that climate change was ‘crap’ was probably not advisable. Honours even again.
At the end I wondered what end these stagey debates serve. Each of the leaders has been seen on television, almost every day this year — and that was true of Mr Rudd when he was a simple backbencher, reminding us all that he would only be interested in the leadership if an overwhelming majority of his party summoned him. Mr Abbott is better, I am told, in meeting individuals and small groups, while Mr Rudd seems to be able to work every kind of crowd well. At the end, nonetheless, people make up their own minds, and the imagined ‘cut and thrust’ of these debates are unlikely to be important.
The opinion polls seem to suggest that the Rudd honeymoon is receding in its effect. Had Julia Gillard remained as PM, the Labor Party would have picked up momentum anyway from the approach of the real election. I think it’s probably true that Mr Rudd has had an added effect, in giving Labor supporters the notion that all is not lost, but he could not have worked all the change. Elections do bring out the steel in party machines.
But the news on the same day that two Labor candidates have to be replaced, within a month of the poll, because of indiscretions must make one wonder, again, about how deep the malaise inside the ALP goes. Yes, Mr Rudd has promised to end all that. But nothing has changed, nor could it have changed, other than as a ‘vision’ of how it might be when the Good Fairy has waved her wand.
What we know is that the Coalition is very likely to win the seats of New England and Lyne, vacated by notable Independents who once belonged to the Nationals. Tasmania is not a good state for Labor, nor is Victoria, and nor is NSW. No one has said much yet about South Australia or the West, but there is no suggestion that Labor will do well there. Can Labor win a seat or two in Queensland and keep all its own? It’s too early to say. But so far as I can see at this stage, the Coalition is likely to win without needing support from anyone else.
And I can’t see any need for any further leader debates. It must be true that if you’ve seen this one you’ve seen them all.