The tone was set at the beginning when a smiling Kevin Rudd shook hands with a scowling Tony Abbott. I saw three different photos of the handshake; all were the same. Did anyone see a smiling Abbott? Was this another Latham moment? Abbott seemed to be spoiling for a fight, a bare-knuckle no-holds-barred street scrap. That’s the style of the pugilistic politician. He knows no other. Yet he didn’t get what he wanted today.
Like PK in the Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One, Rudd skipped around Abbott, boxing positively, adroitly avoiding Abbott’s wild negative swings, riding his angry and at times vicious punches, and landing a few stinging blows himself.
As we seem to be a society obsessed with winning and losing, who won? That depends on your criteria.
As a well argued debate such as might be witnessed in a debating society, it was not a classic. There was little cut and thrust over significant points, except perhaps the Government’s accusation that ‘the Coalition ripped $1billion out of the health care system’. More of that later.
As a debate where new aspects of policy were exposed, it was largely ineffectual; little new emerged. It was never likely that would be so as that was not the purpose of the debate.
It is more appropriate to rate it as a political debate; it was always intended to be just that. That is what was set up in parliament last week. Rudd and Labor wanted to portray Abbott’s and the Coalition’s flimsy health policy and to expose Abbott’s negativity and the Coalition’s obstruction.
In my opinion Rudd won the political debate by a country mile. Others will disagree; I would like to see their rationale. Rudd came across as a man with a policy, and was agreeable, smiling, positive, well informed, and willing to be collaborative. Abbott came across as having a poorly developed policy, offering only a promise of one before the election, and was angry, aggressive, sullen, at times surly, and overwhelmingly carping and negative. Those in studio audiences using the worm rejected Abbott’s approach and applauded Rudd’s. The worm can and probably will be ignored as a gimmick by those who reject its findings or its implications, but to do so would be foolish.
What did you think? No doubt there will be many expert opinions advanced by the commentariat, influenced by what they hoped would happen.
Paul Kelly gave a balanced commentary on a video on The Australian website. He said Rudd had the best of the debate and Labour would be pleased, but threw Abbott a crumb for making the point that Rudd’s policy was ‘not a transforming policy’, and giving him the excuse that it was hard debating when he didn’t have a health policy. Poor Tony!
Peter Hartcher wrote a telling paragraph in the SMH in Worm tales: Negativity works against Abbott: “Each leader played to type. Kevin Rudd played the positive leader with a plan. Tony Abbott played the negative opponent with a gripe.” He added: “But so long as Rudd radiated leadership and positivity, so long as he kept working the vein of public worry over hospitals, he was on winning positive proposal of his own, his negativity invited a matching negativity from the voting public.” He concluded – I don’t understand why: “But while the debate worked better for the Prime Minister than for the Opposition Leader, that doesn't mean Rudd has won the argument.” Really!
In the SMH, Mark Davis in Leaders go hard on an issue that really counts wrote “In their five-minute prepared openings, both men chose the most obvious gambits from the political playbooks. As the incumbent and still relatively fresh-faced Prime Minister only two years in office, Rudd went for the big picture and the vision thing. But he also cleverly personalized the complex issue of hospital reform for voters, retailing stories about his own childhood and linking these tales to concerns today's parents have for the health of their children. As the Opposition Leader installed by his Liberal colleagues to sharpen differences with the government, Abbott played the negative card as hard and as often as he could. He attacked the Prime Minister's trustworthiness, accused him of telling lies, and branded him too incompetent to fix something as complex as the hospital system.”
The ABC’s online network editor Gillian Bradford in The worm declares victory for Rudd said: “Mr Rudd held tight to his successful formula focusing on ‘country hospitals’, ‘rich or poor’, ‘mums and dad’ and even ‘join with us in the positive’. The worm loved it. Several times it went off the scale for Mr Rudd. Not once did it reach such heights for Mr Abbott. Some Labor insiders thought Mr Rudd was ‘crazy brave’ to take on this debate. But the worm has spoken, the gamble paid off.”
On The Drum Barrie Cassidy said in Positivity the best policy as Rudd tweets ahead: “Kevin Rudd looked like a prime minister and Tony Abbott behaved like an opposition leader. Unusually for Rudd, he didn't waste a word. Even though the topic can be complex, not once did he leave his audience behind. He stayed positive throughout and eschewed the temptation to ‘stay on message’ by simply mouthing annoying clichés, the stock in trade of federal ministers these days. You don't need a worm on the screen to tell you that negativity doesn't work in debates; but when you see it as we did today, it brings it home with a thud. Abbott couldn't take a trick. In order to take some of the wind out of the Government's plan - and that's all it is - he had to attack Rudd's record and point to the limitations of the proposal. But without one of his own to promote, it came across as a whingeing, carping exercise. And not a very pleasant one at that. If only he could have seen the worm, then the alarm bells would have gone off.”
On The Drum Unleashed Tim Dunlop in Substance trumps speedos said: “Today's debate between Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott on the subject of health care reform was an unequivocal disaster for Tony Abbott. To the extent that we haven't any feedback on how the public responded to the two leaders, we have to rely on the ‘worms’ provided by Channels Seven and Nine and, despite some degree of difference between the two stations, the overall results were unambiguous: Kevin Rudd won hands down. This is somewhat surprising in that we have been treated to a veritable avalanche of opinion from various sectors of the media since Mr Abbott took over from Malcolm Turnbull (remember him?) that the voters were sick to death of the ‘nerdy’ Kevin Rudd and were warming to the ‘authenticity’ of Mr Abbott. These have been the key elements of a media narrative that argues that people somehow were growing to hate the bookish, long-winded and wonkish Kevin Rudd and were embracing the allegedly more appealing, down-to-earth and macho Tony Abbott.”
In The Australian Joe Kelly wrote in a piece PM will change health funding policy to save regional hospitals: “Kevin Rudd will consider changes to his public hospital takeover plan over fears of cost rises and closures of regional hospitals. The Prime Minister conceded that the Victorian model of charging for services had not worked for country hospitals and pledged to change his system if the same problems emerged.” Rudd did say that, but he and Nicola Roxon have been saying this for a fortnight, emphasizing funding will be adjusted to ensure that no small hospital will close. Other reporters have commented similarly – where have they been? Joe Kelly didn’t offer a ‘winner’.
Hugh Riminton of Ten News gave the points clearly to Rudd. Mark Riley of Channel Seven gave it to Rudd and Gary Morgan on that channel said Rudd was a clear winner. Channel Nine’s Laurie Oakes believes that the contest was closer than the worm suggested, but gave no reason for his view. He conceded that Rudd probably won, but that Tony did pretty well. Channel One’s Chris Uhlmann, who compèred the debate, gave an even handed appraisal, but favoured Rudd’s performance.
On this blog site we have been critical of the partisan backing given to the Opposition by some of the journalists at The Australian. Bushfire Bill’s last post Why is Kevin Rudd so unpopular – Polls, popularity and the Icarus Syndrome spells this out. Maybe the efforts of The Oz backfired today.
Today’s editorial in that paper We need answers, not accusations on health, begins by trying to debunk the accusation that the Coalition ‘ripped 1$ billion out of the health care system’ during the time Abbott was health minister, an accusation he vehemently denies. The editorial begins: “The big fat lie being peddled by the Rudd Government – that Tony Abbott ripped $1billion out of the public hospital system – falls on three counts. First, the Opposition Leader can scarcely be accused of gouging the states when he was not even health minister at the time the funding was done”. Can you believe an editor could write that? What the Government is saying is that it was while he was health minister he ripped out the funds, not before that. The fact is that a 6.3% annual increase in health funding to the states was promised in 2003 but only a 5.3% increase was delivered during Abbott’s time, which amounts to $1billion less than promised. Call it what you will – the Coaltion short-changed the states; the Government calls that ‘gouging’. Today for the first time, during the debate, Abbott conceded that there was a reduction.
The Australian then said “Second, the so-called cut was a relatively small reduction in previously projected increase in funds to the states.” A relatively small reduction? $1 billion dollars – really?
Finally the editorial says: “And third, the $1billion-plus reduction over five years from July 2003 was designed to partly offset John Howard’s subsidies to private health funds, and thus to private hospitals.” So that’s the justification – why not wait to see if the subsidies actually achieved that outcome?
It concludes: “The Rudd Government is desperate to attack the Coalition’s credentials on health and hospital spending, but it will have to do better than this.” No it won’t. This will do and today it did. Abbott may not thank The Oz for urging his denial on to the point where it is clearly ridiculous.
Then today we find that in creating its spurious graph of expenditure, the Coalition had included monies contributed by the Rudd Government. Having exposed this, the graph was withdrawn from the Coalition website and was not used in today’s debate. In any case, the graph Coalition members were waving around is grossly truncated, a dirty statistical trick used by those who wish to make results look much better than they are. With much of the columns missing it deceives the viewer into thinking the bits at the top mean more than they do.
So The Oz, in urging their man on, did him a disservice; it should take note.
No doubt there will be other learned critiques in tomorrow’s press; I wonder what Shanas will say?
So how do we appraise today’s debate?
Many of you have already expressed your views on the previous piece; here is a chance to do so here.
It seems that Kevin Rudd is fully back to his 2007 form. While he exhibits that, and Tony Abbott relies on negativity, carping criticism and unconvincing alternative policy, he will flounder around, flailing his arms wildly, landing few blows, and exhausting himself while Rudd waits patiently to land the killer blow.
Federal politics changed ominously for the Coalition today.
What do you think?