Monday, October 22

Listening to politicians for 90 minutes is a bit numbing, but someone has to do it . . .

Kevin Rudd clearly won last night's debate with Prime Minister John Howard. Does it matter?

For Rudd, certainly. A flat performance, or an unwise answer, would have left the Labor Opposition Leader on the back foot right up to the November 24 election.

On Channel Nine – which broadcast the debate with a "worm", defying the PM ("I will decide the manner in which we debate") – a panel of uncommitted voters gave the nod to Rudd at 65 per cent, with only 29 per cent giving it to Howard.

The journalists who put questions to the two leaders also awarded the debate to Rudd, even the moderator, David Speers of Sky News, although he did so with a smaller margin.

And as the ninety-minute debate neared an end, Rudd's body language changed. He knew he'd won. At the same time, Howard's body language suggested he knew he'd been bested.

However, we should remind ourselves that three years ago Mark Latham won a similar debate with Howard, but by the time the election came around Howard had destroyed him (or did Latham destroy himself?).

And let's lay off the "old and tired" description of Howard. After all, your Grumpy Old Journo is almost the same age as the PM. And he would run out of puff trying to keep up with Howard's morning power-walk.

I'm still trying to be fair, and to overcome what may be bias, but to me it seems that Howard's problem in such a debate is his stubbornness. Liberal Party people admire that as a commendable determination, but I see an intellectual rigidity, if intellectual is the right word.

That leaves him unable to think fast on his feet, to keep up with the cut and thrust of a debate which departs from the script or the answers he has rehearsed.

In addition – and this is not a comment critical of Howard – he is handicapped by poor hearing. His rigid and somewhat awkward stance does not necessarily indicate that he has been caught off balance by the argument. Sometimes he may be straining to hear.

Howard also stumbled on industrial relations. He was well rehearsed with assurances that the Coalition, if re-elected, would make no further changes. The IR laws were now just about right.

But, strangely, he appeared unprepared when the questioner followed up: Why should we believe you? After all, you're the one who who kept your industrial relations plans secret until after the election which gave you control of the Senate.

And Howard must have been relieved he was not grilled about his backflip after his shock discovery that WorkChoices was unfair, leading him to reintroduce the no-disadvantage test he had been so determined to discard.

Although both sides argued economic credentials, the debate was unconvincing. At the political level, economic debate has long corrupted into sloganeering, and last night was no different.

On economic reform, Howard stuck to his previous main claim for credit – he had always supported the reforms brought about by Hawke and Keating – and he was unable to put his hand up for much else.

Rudd got off lightly, with little interrogation about his "me-tooism" as he tried to make himself a smaller target for the Liberal Party. Would he reveal more progressive policies if he made it over the line?

For those rusted on to the Liberal Party, Rudd's arguments last night would have lacked substance. Although Rudd spoke with assurance and vigour, he probably made Howard supporters see him as a snake oil salesman.

Now, how many weeks until November 24?

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