Leaders’ Debate 11/8/13 – style, not substance?

August 12, 2013

Last night’s Leaders’ Debate should have been an opportunity to hear the candidates being closely questioned. It should have been a chance to have policies put up directly against each other. It should have been a moment where hard questions were put, and pressure kept up to force Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott to actually provide some answers.

It wasn’t. The debate was disappointing, at best – and not just because the questions were clearly given to the candidates long beforehand. There were at least two clear ‘gifts’, one for each candidate – in Parliament, they’d be called Dixers – and the last question was almost served up on a platter to allow a policy announcement.

I’m only going to look at a couple of significant moments from the question and answer period, however, because I want to focus on the commentators, post-debate.

Generally, Abbott’s answers tended to be either riddled with slogans, or entirely composed of criticism of Labor. At one point, he referred to Labor’s policies as ‘waffle’, and at another, laughed derisively during Rudd’s answer. Rudd, as sitting Prime Minister, had the advantage of being able to base his answers on the government’s achievements, and go on to talk up new policies. There were few surprises, policy-wise, but it’s rare to see major announcements during a debate.

Rudd stumbled badly on the question of whether a Labor government would build a second airport for Sydney. Although his answer was essentially the same as Abbott’s – ‘we’ll have a look at that with some experts’ – he failed to point the finger at either the former Howard government or New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell. He could have said that earthworks were actually in progress, stopped by Howard. He could have said that O’Farrell had absolutely refused to work with federal Labor. It’s anyone’s guess why he didn’t, but then he compounded the error by pointing out that there were infrastructure needs right across the country. No one likes to hear that their needs might be less important, no matter how true that may be.

For his part, Abbott came a cropper on the issue of aged care. The Coalition’s ‘Real Solutions’ booklet has a vague paragraph promising an ‘agreement’ with providers in the sector. Pressed for detail on actual policy, Abbott had nothing to add. In fact, he grudgingly admitted he would keep the reforms passed under Labor.

Abbott also ruled out any changes to the GST – but was unable to answer why, in that case, the GST would be part of his promised tax review. He also tried to say that any change to the GST would have to involve the agreement of all States and Territories, and therefore unlikely even if he were looking at that. Speers pulled him up immediately for that piece of misinformation. A sitting government has the ability to change the current legislation, without undertaking any consultation.

But it was the last question, leaked some time earlier, that drove the biggest wedge between the leaders – that of marriage equality. The two answers could not have been more different. For Abbott, the issue was settled last term. Besides, there were much more important things. Effectively, the Coalition considered marriage equality a dead, second-order (at best) issue. Abbott did offer a sop at the conclusion of his answer, suggesting that the party room might look at the situation if anything changed. He certainly gave the impression, though, that it wasn’t worth holding your breath.

Rudd reiterated his change of heart, and commitment to marriage equality, calling it a ‘mark of decency’. Then came the election promise. Within the first 100 days of a Labor government, they would introduce legislation removing the impediments within the Marriage Act, and allow a conscience vote. It’s still highly unlikely that such a bill would pass, given the Coalition’s stance, but – unlike Labor’s former position – this would be a bill introduced by a Minister and backed by the Prime Minister. Such things carry their own weight and, while Labor would still have to deal with its own Right faction’s opposition, it gives them a stronger base from which to begin.

So much for questions. Let’s look at how the commentators and audience polls wrapped it up. Having the debate broadcast far and wide provided the opportunity for a real cross-section of viewers. Here’s how the polls saw the debate:

Channel Ten (One HD) = Rudd 61 – Abbott 39
Channel Nine (GEM) = Rudd 59 – Abbott 41
Channel Seven = Abbott 68 – Rudd 32
ABC = Rudd 71 – Abbott 29

Fairly decisive, you’d think. With one exception, every poll gave the debate to Rudd. The ABC’s poll, conducted via Twitter, could rightly be set aside as have a particularly limited audience – but even without that, on balance Rudd won the debate.

But then there were the commentators, who, almost as though they were working from the same script, gave the debate to Abbott. This was particularly startling in the case of the ABC, who published the results of their own polls, then proceeded to completely ignore them.

And why did Abbott ‘win’?

Because Rudd ‘started off nervously’.

Because Abbott ‘sounded confident’.

Because – you have to love the vagueness of this – Abbott ‘looked Prime Ministerial’.

Finally – and this was the point where credibility went out the window – no less a personage than Laurie Oakes asserted that Abbott had won, not in spite of his reliance on three word slogans, but because of them.

Yeah, you read that right.

Because, apparently, the essential qualities in judging whether someone is a good debater have nothing to do with the substance of their arguments. Or how well they refute their opponent’s points. No, no. It’s all about style.

Oscar Wilde observed that those who used the phrase ‘style over substance’ was a marvellous and instant indicator of a fool.

Now, call me the product of a bygone generation, but when I was at school, we were taught that debates are won on the quality of your argument. We were taught how to construct initial statements, build on those, and to rebut and dismantle our opponents’ arguments. We were assessed on those criteria, and the winner was whoever could do that better. Call me a wide-eyed optimist, but I thought that was still how we determined who won our debates.

Oh, silly me. I keep forgetting that modern political reporting has less to do with issues of substance and more to do with whether Kevin Rudd’s hair was mussed up by the wind or Julia Gillard’s shoes sank into the lawn. It’s about whether the person in front of the cameras grabs attention with some snappy talking points, not whether they’re actually saying something of significance.

Think I’m exaggerating? Go take a look. The number one story to come out of last night’s debate is whether Rudd broke the rules by taking notes to the podium with him. And whether Abbott, lauded as being ‘note-free’, might also have had notes, as claimed by Lindsay Coombs, who tweeted a screen-grab showing notes on Abbott’s podium.

(For what it’s worth? The note issue is – and should be – a non-issue. Rudd made no attempt to conceal his notes, and said that as far as he knew, having them was permitted. Clearly, he was wrong. Last night’s setup was the exception rather than the rule for debates. It’s possible Rudd did assume he could act as usual. But really, is there any need to prevent someone from taking notes into a debate? What does it prove? It’s not as though a Prime Minister is required to operate under exam conditions – he has access to experts, briefs, any amount of needed information.)

So this is where we are. What should have been a way for us to learn more about the policies of the new major parties, vigorously debated, analysed at length with the precision that comes from long experience in political journalism – was a farce. Commentators ignored clear poll results, dismissed substance in favour of style, and focused on the existence of a few typed pages.

And today, those same commentators complain that last night’s debate was boring, and that no one will want to watch any others. How ‘lucky’, they said, that Channels Nine and Ten had secondary (read: less popular) channels to carry the broadcast.

I suggest that perhaps those commentators might better use their skills as judges on ‘Australia’s Got Talent’, or similar shows. Meanwhile, perhaps we could have a real debate – and get some real analysis, while we at it.

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Abbott’s jetlag excuse – more than it seems?

October 5, 2010

Julia Gillard is in Brussels right now on her first official overseas trip as Prime Minister. Apart from attending the Asia-Europe meeting, she’ll be expected to meet with as many other national leaders as possible. As if that wasn’t enough, she’s floated the idea of a new research and development treaty with the European Union, stopped off in Zurich to sweet-talk the heads of FIFA into awarding Australia the 2022 World Cup, visited troops in Afghanistan’s Oruzgan province and talked with leaders in Kabul. To say this is a busy week is definitely an understatement.

Tony Abbott, meanwhile, is travelling to London to meet with the British Prime Minister David Cameron for the Tory party conference. He had been invited to accompany Gillard to Afghanistan, but declined the offer. When asked why, he initially said that he felt that travelling to Afghanistan before going on to London would leave him jetlagged. He added that he he felt it was important that he do the trip to England ‘justice’.

This is pretty much a gaffe of the first order. Media leaped on his remarks with glee, serving them up to Labor politicians in the hope of getting a snarky soundbite. Gillard indulged in a little comparison, commenting that she had managed to get eight hours’ sleep despite her busy schedule, but otherwise let the issue fall flat. Some members of the public, meanwhile, were outraged. The father of an Australian soldier recently killed in Oruzgan province was particularly scathing; for him, Abbott’s remarks were nothing short of disrespectful to his son’s memory.

Should Abbott have chosen his words more carefully? Of course he should have; no one suggested that he meant to be disrespectful to Australian troops, but he left himself wide open for criticism. But really? Talk about a non-story.

Except for what Abbott’s party men did a little later.

Senator George Brandis came out of his corner swinging on the subject. How dare anyone criticise Abbott, he thundered. Meeting with Cameron was the most important thing any politician could do in Europe. Gillard, he sneered, was simply ‘speed-dating’, while Abbott was consulting the leader of a sovereign country. “A profligate Labor government drove Britain into deeper levels of debt than Britain had ever known in peace time … just as we’ve had in Australia,” Brandis said, implying that Abbott would be discussing our dire economic situation with the Man Who Will Save Britain.

Joe Hockey wasn’t far behind. The invitation to visit Afghanistan was nothing more than ‘silly’, and by making it, Gillard was playing ‘political games’. Of course Abbott would visit the troops – in fact, he had always been planning to do just that – so Gillard’s inviting him to travel with her was ‘low-rent politics’. He finished up with a warning that made no sense at all: ‘It’s Julia Gillard that is playing this game of snakes and ladders, and I say to Julia Gillard, be very careful of where you are treading.’

Oddly, Senator Barnaby Joyce offered the most reasonable comment. Abbott knew he’d made a mistake, was now going to rectify that mistake by visiting the troops, and for that he should be commended.

It’s important to point out here that all these responses were far out of proportion to any comments made by Labor, and even by the media. The sudden, vicious attacks from Brandis and Hockey turned a momentary gaffe into an issue of note.

Brandis’ contribution sent the message to Europe that, in Australian eyes, it was simply unimportant compared to Great Britain. It trivialised Gillard’s meetings with the heads of NATO, the European Union, Korea and China. It was also sexist; I think it’s fair to say that no male Prime Minister would ever be accused of ‘speed-dating’ world leaders.

And Hockey? The notion that it’s ‘silly’ to invite the Opposition Leader undertake a bipartisan trip to visit Australia’s troops serving overseas defies logic. Even if Abbott had always planned to visit the troops later (which seems unlikely, given he said nothing about any such ideas until after his ‘jetlag’ comment), surely he could have said as much to Gillard and the public at the time the invitation was first extended? Hockey’s assertion goes further, however; apparently, even the very idea is laughable. Using Hockey’s reasoning, it is simply ridiculous to expect that both the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader might appear in the same place at the same time to give support to the troops.

Both of Abbott’s would-be defenders have inflicted more damage on the Liberal leader than any of his own words. But why on earth would they do this? Was this a case of standard attack politics – divert attention from one’s own problems by creating an issue out of nothing? Were they just caught on the hop, and unable to come up with anything more substantial?

I suspect this is all a very clumsy diversion. Today, The Australian reported that several Coalition MPs had expressed dissatisfaction with Abbott’s hands-off position on industrial relations. Two of the loudest were Steve Ciobo, dumped from the Coalition’s frontbench after the election, and Jamie Briggs, the man appointed to head up the so-called ‘Committee to Scrutinise Government Waste’. These are not small voices, and for them to be so openly critical of their leader exposes the party to severe criticism.

Labor were quick to capitalise on the report, proclaiming that here was ‘proof’ that WorkChoices was not – as Abbott claimed – ‘dead, buried, cremated’. Coalition MPs scrambled to provide damage control, but there was real potential for this to become a real point of vulnerability that Labor could exploit, both in the House and to the media. The alternative was to meet the ‘jetlag’ comments head on, and attempt to spin that situation as both exemplary behaviour by Abbott and a matter for criticism of Labor.

Unfortunately, that strategy did more harm than good. Abbott now vehemently asserts that his trip to Afghanistan has been planned ‘for a long time’, but cannot explain why he did not volunteer the information earlier – nor can he justify why he made the ‘jetlag’ remarks in the first place. He apologised to the families of soldiers killed while serving overseas, but could only say that his words were ‘ill-chosen’.

Meanwhile, his defenders – intentionally or not – gave the impression that the Coalition is completely disinterested in bipartisanship where supporting our troops is concerned, trivialised important meetings with leaders from around the world and communicated to those leaders that they believe attending a political party conference is more important than treaty negotiations and briefings on the war in Afghanistan.

It’s a very bad look for the Coalition, and particularly for Abbott. They appear to be gambling that the industrial relations issue will be overtaken by ‘jetlag’. Labor certainly won’t forget about it, though – and hopefully, neither will the media.

Abbott should have to answer some very pointed questions about his words, his defenders and his dissenters. If this interview with Laurie Oakes tonight is any indication, such questions are likely to prove extremely uncomfortable for the Coalition.


Let Gillard be Gillard?

August 2, 2010

It could have been the singlest stupid remark made by a politician in this campaign.

As of today, we were going to see the ‘real’ Julia Gillard. Up to now, apparently, we’d only been seeing glimpses, because the ALP campaign was being run in an ‘orthodox’ manner – which is to say, scripted events, crafted speeches and hyper-awareness of possible gaffes. All that was about to change.

The politicians, the pundist, the media – and everyone else – seized on this with almost unholy glee. ‘Will the real Julia Gillard please stand up?’ asked Tony Abbott with his trademark ‘I’m-being-naughty’ smile. ‘Just how many Julias are there?’, ‘Who is the real Julia?’, ‘I’m Julia and so’s my wife!’ went through the Twitterverse and Facebook. ‘If we are going to see the real Julia now, who have we been seeing for the last two weeks?’

It’s an interesting question. Almost universally, both campaigns have been roundly criticised for being too cautious, too concerned with avoiding missteps. In a very real sense, it’s been a ‘race to the middle’ so far – the middle being a bland, uncommitted, slogan-laden series of carefully managed events with all the offensiveness of blancmange. And all the taste and texture, too.

Laurie Oakes, interviewing Abbott yesterday, pulled the Liberal leader up every time he uttered the Coalition’s ‘stop the waste … stop the boats’ slogan. Media have been counting the number of times Gillard said ‘Moving Forward’ in a single speech. After a while, you could almost hear the collective brain of the nation switching off as the spin started up.

That criticism, combined with polls that are now clearly showing a trend indicating a Coalition victory, obviously rang alarm bells somewhere in the Labor Party. The result? This morning Gillard came out against what she called ‘modern campaign orthodoxy’. She was ‘stepping up’ to show herself more fully to the Australian people.

So what does the ‘real’ Julia Gillard look like?

We got our first look at her in a speech and media conference held in the seat of Lindsay, where she announced changes to Family Tax Benefit and school governance. The event was certainly managed – not held out in a shopping centre, but at a school assembly. The speech was definitely scripted. But what about the media conference afterwards?

The first obvious change was the accent. Much has been made of the notion that Gillard worked hard to lose the ‘Western suburbs’ twang – but it was back this morning. Along with the accent came a tone we’ve rarely heard so far this campaign, and then only when Gillard appeared annoyed. Strident, forceful, a little bit nasal, a little bit grating – 100% Gillard.

The language was simple and strong. About the most jargon-laden comment to sneak in was ’empowering’ – although she did fall back on ‘deep and lasting community consensus’ when questioned on Labor’s climate change policy. Most of the time, she was talking at a level that could easily be understood by someone without specialised knowledge or a lifetime spent decoding pollie-speak.

And she didn’t hold back on her reactions, either. Asked if she had questioned the affordability of the new Family Tax Benefit promises – a clear attempt to trip her up on recent accusations that she opposed paid parental leave in Cabinet – her response was immediate and quelling: ‘You bet I did’. Was she even aware of Cabinet rules regarding the National Security Committee? She rolled her eyes and said, ‘I know some people want to make something out of this … Of course I’ve read the Cabinet rules’. She was blunt in her answers and scathing in her criticism of the Coalition.

The most telling moment, for me, came when someone asked if the Labor Party was going to change its position on same-sex marriage. Previously, we’ve heard a lot of spin about ‘Australian culture and tradition’ from Labor, coupled with a slightly apologetic tone. Today, Gillard was direct. The Marriage Act says ‘man and woman’, we’re not going to change that, but we’re committed to removing discrimination, here’s what we’ve done so far. No apology, no justification.

Now, her answer is completely unsatisfactory. It’s not even logically consistent, falling back on the Rudd government’s very weak argument that what’s already in the Act is the final word, and is somehow not discriminatory. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s complete rubbish. But it’s the way she answered it that I want to focus on here.

Gillard had to know that her party’s position is unpopular. Every poll conducted has shown that the majority of Australians believe that discrimination in marriage should be removed – is, in fact, long overdue. Abbott gets a bit of a pass on this issue – by far, Liberal voters are under-represented in that majority, and he can speak to his base without causing too many waves. Gillard’s situation, however, is far more problematic. She could have gone for the soft-pedal approach, attempting to excuse and justify the position with a lot of weasel words and spin. It wouldn’t have changed the substance of her answer, but it would have mollified some Labor voters listening out there.

She didn’t do that. She put it out there – like it or lump it, this is what we’re doing.

I don’t like it. I imagine many, many Australians won’t like it, either. But it’s something we haven’t seen a lot of in this campaign – a willingness to be unpopular.

And whether those positions are right or wrong, it’s refreshing not to have to struggle through the spin.

Simon Crean’s responses to media questions today have been similarly forceful and blunt. You could be forgiven for thinking that the old man of Labor was back. Likewise Jenny Macklin was having no truck with fancy speech and measured delivery – she sounded as though she was having a conversation in the supermarket, not fronting a media pack who had the power to shape her image for the nation.

And they all had the same look on their faces – a rather odd mix of determination and relief. It was as though, somewhere inside them, they’d reconciled warring voices. It was more than slightly reminiscent of a certain scene in the political drama The West Wing, when an incumbent President in trouble with the polls decides to stop worrying about offending people and be ‘real’.

In the television story, that strategy wins the White House. There are three more weeks to go in this Australian campaign. It remains to be seen whether the ‘real’ Gillard will show herself as consistently different from the groomed and well-managed leader of the early campaign – but if she does, it just might be the saving of Labor.


Flashback – the 2007 leader’s debate

July 22, 2010

Back during the 2007 Federal campaign, I decided to write a running commentary on the single leaders’ debate between John Howard and Kevin Rudd. It was an … interesting experience, and so I’ll be repeating that performance here on Sunday, July 25. Notes will be made in real-time, and the final piece published just after the first pundits’ decisions come in.

But first … step into the wayback machine with me for a while, and relive 2007 – the Rise of the Worm.

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2007 Leaders’ Debate – the Rise of the Worm

The stage is set. The Great Hall in Parliament House, Sky News’ political editor David Speers, five journalists, a split audience apparently picked 50/50 by both Liberal and Labor representatives … two would-be leaders of the country …

And …

Ladies and gentlemen – we have a worm!

Yes, folks, the plucky lad has managed to wriggle his way into the debate, despite a firm ‘NO’ from John Howard and several rounds of tut-tutting from the National Press Club. Responding to the twirling fingers of 50 voters (described by Channel Nine as ‘swinging’), Our Hero has defied PresidentialPrime Ministerial wrath and made an appearance.

(For them as doesn’t know, the worm provides a visual representation of approval/disapproval in a selected audience watching the debate, measured by turning a dial and displayed on the TV screen.)

Yes, I watched the Channel Nine feed. And I’m glad I did.

It was widely trumpeted last week that John Howard hates the worm. Last night, it became clear that the worm hated Howard. Both The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald reported the worm’s verdict – Kevin Rudd was the clear victor, coming in with 65% of the vote, compared with Howard’s 29% (a drop from his Latham debate score of 36%). Tony Abbot was quick to pooh-pooh the result, saying that the worm was rigged to display only audience preconceptions, rather than a true reflection of Mr Howard’s performance.

But is that true? Let’s have a look.

Right from the beginning, Rudd came across as more comfortable, forthright and respectful. Howard looked grumpy – in fact, more than a little put out by something. Howard’s opening statement ran overtime and necessitated two warnings, but he seemed determined to get in every last word.

Running overtime became a recurring phenomenon for Howard. While Rudd went over time once, in a response to a question regarding the leadership of the Liberal Party (‘isn’t a vote for the coalition really a vote for the unknown’). Mr. Howard, on the other hand, ran over seven times, and o two occasions was verbally warned by the moderator not to do it again. Each time, he subsided with obviously bad grace.

Mr Howard made direct, personal attacks at Mr Rudd on several occasions, describing him as ‘dishonest’, ‘pathetic’, ‘hypocritical’, and an ‘appeaser’. Mr Rudd indulged only in one such attack – but it was a doozy.

The first round of questions came from the journalists.

Asked how he would manage the economy, Howard immediately went on the offensive, citing the Dread Spectre of Imminent 17% Interest Rates and making pronouncements of doom should a Labor government be elected.

Asked why we should change governments in the midst of an economic boom, Rudd pointed out that booms inevitably end no matter who is in power and suggested the real emphasis was on managing life afterwards. Howard attacked Rudd again, attempted to educate the public as to the ‘truth’ about fiscal conservatism, and brought up Peter Costello’s record as Treasurer.

Apparently, the worm hates Costello. Every time Costello’s name was mentioned by Howard, the worm dipped – in one case, ‘all the way to Antarctica’, as Tony Wright from The Age put it .

Curiously, an attack on Mr Howard’s record as Federal Treasurer was well received. Mr Rudd’s approval climbed to near the top of the chart for his entire speech, despite the fact that he pulled a fast one with the numbers.

On the vexatious issue of union representation (or over-representation) in the ALP, Mr Rudd fronted up to it – then got cheeky by suggesting the high number of lawyers in the Liberal front bench was similarly unbalanced. He followed it up with the recent James Hardie case, in which union representatives accomplished a good deal in terms of compensation for asbestosis sufferers among Hardie employers, and the approval jumped up. Not even Howard’s ‘scary unions’ riff managed to get much of a rise.

It was particularly interesting to see Rudd cop to the ‘70% of your front bench are union’ charge. Rather than downplaying or denying it, Rudd chose to make it a badge of honour. It seemed to work – a slight dip in approval came when asked how much the ALP owes the unions, but the reverent mention of former Prime Minister Bob Hawke (himself a former President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions) cancelled it out.

The issue of tax relief played reasonably well for Howard – he riffed on it several times throughout the night, to a fairly good effect. Rudd’s contention that tax relief did not address what he called ‘real costs’ in terms of day-to-day living was much more popular, though.

Interest rates have been a big bug-a-boo in this campaign (which only feels like it’s lasted several months already, honest). Last night, it seems that ennui had finally set in with the audience and the commentators. There were minor responses to Howard’s warnings and invocation of the ghost of Paul Keating, but for the most part, it looked like it was no longer an effective Coalition weapon.

When asked to apologise for recent interest rates, Howard said he would only apologise for things which he considered himself accountable. This, at least, is consistent with his stance on indigenous reconciliation.

Industrial Relations – which has played well for Kevin Rudd so far – surprisingly didn’t make much of an appearance in the debate. Rudd’s opening statement contained the unequivocal promise to ‘abolish WorkChoices’, but after that, it was Howard who brought it up several times as an example of successful policy. The worm, apparently, wasn’t listening to that – but it was listening when Howard was asked how he could guarantee no further changes to WorkChoices, given his own front bench had been supporting the idea. Howard’s reassurances that he felt there was nothing more that needed to be done for industrial relations reform were unconvincing, especially after Laurie Oakes (who did a splendid job as devil’s advocate for the night) pointed out he’d said something similar last election – and then ‘lo and behold’, WorkChoices appeared.

The one big stoush of the night came over OECD figures that showed Australia’s woeful record for education spending compared to similar countries. We are, in fact, the only such nation to have cut education spending, in a period when other developed nations rose by up to 48%. Rudd pounced on these, only to be slapped around by Howard – who, it has to be said, appeared petulant in his insistence that Mr Rudd was dishonest, had misrepresented the figures and was ‘pathetic’. Rudd’s response was to smile at the audience and say he’d stand by the OECD report.

Climate change was an area where Howard chose to make a policy announcement – the establishment of a ‘climate change fund’ which would run on the revenue from carbon trading permits, and financial assistance to low income earners who would ‘inevitably’ bear the brunt of ‘inevitable’ higher electricity charges. As policies go, it was pretty well-received. His refusal to ratify Kyoto or go any further than to say ‘we all accept that mankind has made a contribution to global warming’ but ‘must be sensible’ got a lukewarm reception, though.

Rudd didn’t fare much better on climate change. Although the promise to ratify Kyoto was popular, his repeated dodging of specific early targets on emission reduction clearly irritated the worm, and gave him his lowest ratings of the night. It’s a clear weakness for a man who describes himself as ‘passionate’ about addressing issues of global warming.

A supplementary question to Mr Howard asked if he felt it was possible to change President George W. Bush’s mind on climate change. (Let’s leave aside the apparent idiocy of asking this about a President on his way out for a moment). Howard asserted that Bush’s attitude was changing – and the worm expressed its most immediate response of the night. Straight to the bottom. The US President’s unpopularity at home seems to be mirrored here.

Iraq was a particularly telling issue. Asked whether he felt the threat to Australia from terrorism had increased or decreased since our invasion of Iraq, Howard made another policy announcement – this time, that our troops in Iraq would ‘evolve’ to take on a training-based role for Iraqi forces. Pushed on the question, he said things were getting better. Pushed again, he gave ground just far enough to confirm that terrorism was ‘still a real threat’. His failure to answer that question played very badly with the audience.

Rudd gave a firm commitment to bring home the troops, and (in the grab of the night) described the invasion of Iraq as ‘the greatest single error of Australian national security policy-making since Vietnam’. The worm loved him for it – as, no doubt, did the media for that sound-bite.

In follow-up questions, Howard went on the attack again, described Rudd as not serious about the commitment to withdraw from Iraq and calling him hypocritical. During this response he was warned for time twice.

Rudd suffered when trying to defend his record as a bit of a flip-flopper on issues like Commonwealth land for housing and the Medicare Safety Net. His firm statements on working to end capital punishment on a global scale, however, played well.

On the thorny issue of reconciliation, Howard got some approval for his Northern Territory intervention, but repeated that he would never say sorry. It was interesting to note that, for the most part, the worm was fairly content with this. Rudd, pushed on why he’d agreed to the NT intervention, responded ‘we backed it because of the kids’, and followed up with emphasising the value of an apology for bridge-building. This was warmly received by the worm.

The second round of questions were from the leaders to each other. The only real moment of note here was Howard’s continual refusal to answer the question of whether an employee, under WorkChoices, can be stripped of his right to redundancy payments.

By contrast, Howard’s attempt to poke Rudd about his commitment to climate change came off looking like something from the schoolyard. Why didn’t Mr Rudd talk longer to Bush (who he described as the ‘most powerful man’ in the world) about it, if he’s so all fired up, accused Howard. Rudd’s response – that Bush wasn’t about to change his mind – was clearly unexpected by Howard, and there was evident chagrin on his face.

Closing statements were pretty much a recap, and the worm’s responses stayed consistent.

In the entire debate, Rudd dipped just below the midline on only two occasions. Howard spent much of the debate there. At the top end, Rudd hit the peak – and went off the top of the chart – on several occasions. Howard almost got to the top once, but only for a few seconds.

Now, there’s a lot of talk about whether the worm is a true reflection of what happened. To read and listen to the commentators, however, the worm spake true this time. Sky News’ post-game show handed the debate to Rudd without even seeing the worm, and today’s media has been largely unequivocal in following that trend. It’s worth pointing out that, despite the poor showing Howard makes in these debates, he keeps getting elected. Rudd’s team, no doubt, devoutly hopes that is going to change.

Finally, an interesting little note about the worm in action last night. Howard had insisted that the worm not make an appearance in this ‘one and only’ debate – he won’t agree to any more, and he didn’t want the worm anywhere near it. The ABC was happy with that. So was Sky. Channel Nine took a feed from the ABC via the National Press Club, and used the worm with its studio audience. According to Channel Nine, they never agreed to do otherwise.

It appears someone at the National Press Club had other ideas. When it was discovered that the worm was in residence, the ABC made a decision to cut Channel Nine’s feed. An ABC technician with a sense of fair play warned Channel Nine, who went to their back-up feed when it happened. The back-up feed was then cut. Channel Nine scrambled around, and – through the use of a cable box not unlike the ones that sit on top of the TV at home – picked up Sky’s feed, and the worm moved house.

Mr Howard denies authorising any such move, and says no one in his party would have done it. Kevin Rudd wanted the worm – even to the extent of getting a petition going on the Kevin ’07 website to ‘Save the Worm’. Everyone is pointing the finger at the National Press Club, who are angrily saying that Channel Nine were ‘told’ not to use the worm.

Ray Martin summed up my feelings on the matter last night, in his wrap-up : ‘So much for free speech’.

My verdict? It was no contest. Rudd may have won the debate, but the Worm Conquered All.


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