Ozvote 07 – the Health debate (repost)

With the Health debate between Minister Nicola Roxon and Shadow Peter Dutton looming on the agenda today, I thought I’d repost my analysis of the 2007 debate. Remember, at that time, the current Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was the Health Minister. Looking back can be enlightening sometimes.

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The National Press Club has been the scene for two crucial debates in the upcoming Federal Election. Yesterday, Treasurer Peter Costello debated Opposition Treasury spokesperson Wayne Swan. The worm handed the prize directly to Swan (with nearly 60% approval rating), although most commentators gave it narrowly to Costello – based, it seems, more on Swan’s nerves than any real difference in economic policy. The hold-out was Channel Nine’s 60 Minutes phone poll, which – as with the leaders debate – came down squarely in favour of Costello (65%).

Today was the Health debate. Health Minister Tony Abbott versus Opposition Health spokesperson Nicola Roxon. It looked like it was shaping up to be a good stoush, even without the worm – who, no doubt, was recovering from a good deal of fatigue. It’s done a fair bit of climbing and diving lately.

But then Tony Abbott didn’t turn up to begin.

Or bother sending a message explaining why he was late.

Or when he might make it, if at all.

Or apologising.

In his absence, Nicola Roxon held what can only be described as a highly genial press conference, marred only by a moment of mud-slinging when she described Abbott as a consummate buck-passer whose highest priority was keeping John Howard out of trouble. Every time a question was asked, she spoke directly to the reporter and thanked him/her for it – which gave the whole process a slightly surreal air reminiscent of ‘Dorothy Dixers’ during Question Time. She even offered, when one journalist mentioned his question had originally been for Abbott, to do an impersonation of him – an offer which was greeted by a great deal of laughter from the press corps.

Roxon’s policy announcements bring the Labor commitment to Health up to $2 billion. This is largely concentrated on preventative medicine, lowering elective surgery waiting lists, equitable pay for nurses (with the inevitable dig at WorkChoices) and providing dental care for 1 million people. The press corps didn’t let her off, either – but she seemed cool, and had answers readily available.

Abbott finally turned up 35 minutes late and apologised, but ‘even in an election campaign things go awry’. The apology was perfunctory, and, judging by the reaction of the press corps, not well received.

His opening statement lost a lot of steam – largely because many of his points had already been attacked by both Roxon and the press corps. In the face of the huge criticism levelled at private health insurance gap and loss of Commonwealth public hospital funding, his roll call of Coalition health achievements sounded pretty hollow. It wasn’t helped by his insistence that the problem with public hospitals was solely the fault of ‘State Labor governments’ and attacks on both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, while claiming to want to end ‘the blame game’.

Abbott’s response to questions was completely different to Roxon’s. His manner was hectoring, there were no ‘thank yous’, and every answer was prefaced by an extended attack on Federal Labor. Most often, the target was Kevin Rudd, which struck this writer as slightly bizarre, given the presence of Roxon sitting right next to him. Abbott’s treatment of her tended to give the impression he considered her ineffectual and hardly worth his while to notice, but if it was a strategy, it backfired badly. Coming on the heels of his failure to arrive on time for the debate, it looked like rudeness.

His other main strategy was the time-honoured politician’s tactic of refusing to answer questions directly. In this, he contrasted poorly with Roxon, whose answers – while somewhat long-winded (which didn’t always play well with the press corps) – tended to be directed at the substance of the question. Policy announcements were difficult to pick out of the rhetoric, being bounded around with equal parts Coalition-praising and Labor-damning. In fact, in both his opening statement and in answer to questions, the only policy he even mentioned was the much-criticised ‘local boards for public hospitals’ idea.

Finally, the question for which this writer had been waiting came. Why hadn’t Abbott taken better care when making his travel arrangements, and why didn’t he have a deputy available to take his place, if necessary? Abbott’s response? He had to be at a campaign launch, and – ‘given the speed of planes’ – it was impossible to be there any earlier than he actually arrived. The inference could be drawn, then, that Abbott considered the debate of minor importance, able to be sacrificed in favour of a campaign launch, without even the courtesy of an explanation via Airphone.

In closing, Abbott rang the bell of ‘our record, our record (which was, by then, becoming something of a broken record). Roxon picked up that refrain, but showed the negative side of an 11-year Coalition government. That was a particularly dangerous strategy, but she concluded with what is becoming Labor’s clarion call in this election – the appeal to the ‘ordinary Australian with everyday worries’.

Lacking a worm, I’d have to conclude that the debate was a clear win to Roxon (as did the majority of Sky’s commentators). Many of the points on which she outstripped Abbott had nothing to do with policy, and everything to do with respect – respect for the press corps, the opponent, and the desire of people to hear direct answers to direct questions. Coming on the heels of Abbott’s sledging yesterday of asbestosis sufferer and campaigner Bernie Banton, this counts heavily against him. Roxon’s policy announcements came across as sound and well-considered, with a big emphasis on specific programmes (although she didn’t speak specifically as to how Labor planned to increase the workforce of skilled hospital workers). Abbott’s were vague, consisting largely of attacks on State Labor governments and a sketchy plan for a massive increase in hospital bureaucracies at the local level – while all the while insisting that Australia has, apparently, never had it so good.

It was pretty clear that Abbott knew he’d lost, too. As the two debaters shared the traditional handshake for the cameras afterwards, Roxon commented that Abbott could have made it to the debate on time. Abbott’s response was to snarl out the side of his mouth, ‘That’s bullshit, you’re being deliberately unpleasant. I suppose you can’t help yourself, can you?’ while maintaining a fixed smile.

There couldn’t be a greater contrast with yesterdays’ debate. Costello was clearly the polished politician, and Swan a nervous nelly. Today, Roxon was relaxed, chatty, serious where she needed to be and solid all the way through. Abbott, despite his long experience as Health Minister, came across as rude, out of touch and a political novice.

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