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.


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.

Ozvote ’07 – Communications debate.

November 19, 2007

The Communications debate was mostly about broadband. Facts and figures were disputed back and forth, along with the inevitable accusations of cost blowouts and unrealistic budgets.

Senator Helen Coonan, the Howard government’s Communications Minister, waxed lyrical about the ‘lifeblood of the Australian economy’. Her government would deliver – is, she asserted, already delivering – speed of up to 12 megabits/second. With the use of the Wimax wireless network, an ‘upgrade path’ to 70 mbit/sec was in the works, which would reach the most remote regions of Australia. In the meantime, an expert task force would ‘continue to pursue a new fibre network’ in large regional centres and capital cities. Wimax was clearly the jewel in the broadband crown for the Coalition. Coonan stated repeatedly that it had delivered speeds of 12 mbit/second over a distance of 25km in the Cape York Peninsula.

Labor’s Stephen Conroy promised a 5 year build of a fibre-to-node network (delivering speeds 40 to homes and business up to 40 times faster than currently available, and 100 mbit/sec to educational institutions) that would be a progressive switch-on as each part of the network was completed. Prices would be set by an independent statutory authority, rather than the Minister in closed session with Telstra. All this would be accompanied by the already-announced computers-in-schools, along with internet kiosks and educational programs for seniors.

Policies rolled out, the two representatives got down to the business of tearing apart each other’s proposals.

Coonan was adamant that Labor could not deliver its package within five years. Her estimate was at least 2013. She also accused Labor of underfunding, of promising coverage that was not ‘scientifically possible’, and of having no idea of the complexities involved in rolling out national high-speed broadband.

Conroy also appealed to science. The Coalition’s claims of delivering 12 mbit/sec over 25 km, were he said, completely misleading, and even the provider in question (Internode) did not claim to be able to do that reliably. He muttered darkly about politicians doing deals behind closed doors that were neither transparent nor fair, and pointed out that the Coalition’s network was not only somewhere in the ether but had completely failed to account for capital cities and major regional centres.

(A little aside here … going over these claims in some detail, both have made telling points. Fibre-to-node is expensive, and the cost of building nodes in remote regions may well be prohibitive. This could eat into Labor’s promised 98% coverage. Wimax, on the other hand, is nowhere near as reliable as Coonan has claimed. Wireless broadband is fraught with problems – dead spots, interference from other signals, and reflection from buildings cancelling out incoming signals. Most problematically, wireless suffers from bandwidth dependence – with more users in an area, there is more demand on bandwidth and speeds drop accordingly, and if the allotted bandwidth is not reserved, wireless users may be sharing with other radio signals – leading, again, to lower speeds and potential interference. Internode will not guarantee a 12mbit/sec speed – it has said that speeds ‘up to’ 12 mbit/sec can be achieved.)

I’ve made it sound all very civilised. It wasn’t. The viewing audience was treated to the most disgusting display of bad manners yet exhibited in this campaign. The moderator, Sky’s David Speers, did his best, but even he was shouted down.

The major offender was Helen Coonan . She repeatedly interrupted both Conroy and Speers, raising her voice and stridently proclaiming ‘Steve doesn’t have a clue’, ‘Nonsense!’, ‘anyone who knows anything about broadband’ and laughing derisively any time Conroy spoke about Labor’s policies. When Conroy was asked by the moderator how much of Australia would have broadband by the end of the next term of politics, Coonan shouted, ‘NONE!’ She talked over Conroy and Speers, and was completely unwilling to allow either of them to speak if she felt her point needed to be repeated again.

Speers asked her several times to stop interrupting. He was unfailingly polite, although it was clear from his face that he was becoming exasperated. Coonan was unmoved.

So often when one party is being rude in an argument, the other finds themselves joining in just to be heard. This happened with Conroy – several times he visibly lost patience with Coonan’s tirade and interrupted her. Unlike Coonan, though, he displayed some self-control and reined himself in – and apologised to Speers.

The real moment of disgust, for this viewer, came when Speers attempted to move the conversation on from broadband to other communications issues such as media ownership. This came after a back-and-forth exchange of ‘yes you do! no we don’t!’ regarding the source of funding for broadband, and, frankly, was getting tiresome. Speers jumped in after Conroy finished his last statement and said, ‘We really need to move on from broadband,’ and started to ask his next question.

Coonan’s response? A cry of ‘That’s not fair!’, followed by two more minutes of diatribe about how Labor was uninformed, inexperienced, etc., raising her voice to completely drown out Speers.

This was the height of arrogance. All through these debates, the Coalition speakers have been characterised by a lack of respect for their opponents. They have tended to treat questions from the floor or from reporters as necessary evils that must be tolerated – or, in the case of Alexander Downer, laughed at and derided as absurd and irrelevant. They have had to be warned over and over again for going over time and for interrupting. They have made personal attacks on their opponents.

Coonan, however, was by far the worst. Second only to Abbott’s abuse of Nicola Roxon, her behaviour has shown the nastiest side of Coalition politics. In this, they are led by their Prime Minister and Peter Costello, whose press conference behaviour has become increasingly unpleasant.

They have shown themselves condescending to the media, abusive to their political opponents (listen to Peter Costello on Bob Brown, sometime) and dismissive of the Australian people’s real concerns about their everyday expenses and their workplaces. Whatever you think of their policies, it cannot be denied that their behaviour has been inexcusable.

Labor’s nose isn’t clean. Rudd stoops to it – his rhetoric is subtler, but there’s no doubt he’s calling Howard a fuddy-duddy. So does Gillard, and Conroy.

What I’ve noticed, though, in watching virtually non-stop coverage of press conferences, policy launches and debates, is this – while Labor might throw the occasional ball of mud, for the most part they’ve avoided attacking the Coalition representatives as people. If they attack Peter Costello, for example, they attack him on his avowed love of industrial relations reform. They don’t call him an incompetent liar. Nicola Roxon’s characterisation of Tony Abbott as rude and careless (when he failed to turn up for the Health debate until it was more than half over) was personal, and there’s no getting away from that.

In terms of playing the man, though, the Coalition takes the prize.

It’s a truism in politics that voters respond to the person as much as to the message. If that’s the case, then the Coalition are in trouble. The Australian public don’t, as a general, rule, like being treated as though they were idiots. There’s a certain sneaking respect for the clever putdown – but they don’t appreciate rudeness for rudeness’ sake.

Ozvote ’07 – Defence Debate

November 19, 2007

The head-to-head debates organised by the National Press Club and other organisations finally wrapped up last week. Despite Mr Howard’s apparent willingness to debate Mr Rudd on economics ‘any time’, it doesn’t look like we’ll see anything of that sort.

The final debates were Brendan Nelson and Joel Fitzgibbon on Defence, held at the Lowy Institute, and Helen Coonan and Stephen Conroy on Communications. The latter wasn’t so much a debate as it was a moderated interview in the Sky Australia studios – and perhaps that accounts for the appalling behaviour demonstrated therein. I’ll get to that in my mext post.

The first thing that has to be said about the Defence debate is that the quality of the audio was truly horrendous. Rather than take a direct audio feed, the broadcast relied on camera microphones – the result was a muddy-sounding, echoing mumble. Accordingly, this report is going to be a little less detailed than others, I’m afraid.

The Coalition have a formula, and they’re sticking to it – a recap of the wonderful things they’ve done for Australia. In the case of Defence, this largely came out as Labor-bashing. The Coalition, on gaining office in 1996, inherited a huge debt, which they’ve systematically eliminated – and all without cutting defence spending at all. The number of combat-ready troops is up, our ocean borders are comprehensively defended, and vague assertions of efficiency were made. Nelson’s opening also included a tribute to the 4100 defence personnel currently serving in the capacity of ‘protecting the Australian people on our borders, in the region and in the world’. Tribute made, the room was treated to a few minutes of jingoism – that there are some truths in Australia by which we live, and which are worthwhile to defend. Just what those truths were went unspecified.

Moving on to plans for the future, Nelson gave the audience a shopping list. Under a Coalition government, there will be new helicopters, new planes, new destroyers, and new contracts for defence projects. The defence sector will employ 7000 more people over the next five years. Two defence technical colleges, in Queensland and Adelaide, will be up and running, as will a ‘National Defence Skills Institute’, that will train 1100 students in university and vocational training positions. There will also be a $450 million increase in funding to Army reserves.

He wound up by warning that the challenges posed by defence were increasingly diverse – population shifts, pandemics, terrorism and maritime security were all mentioned. Then the bogeyman was let out of the wardrobe – the ‘global struggle against extremism’, which, he said, was ‘essentially a global movement of Muslim extremism’, was our biggest challenge. For this reason, it is necessary to maintain troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq. ‘We owe it to our children to stand up for the values that made Australia great’, Nelson said, and it was important that we didn’t ‘allow terrorism to change the shape of our country and our world’.

Questions zeroed in on the Coalition’s lack of meaningful natural security policy, the lack of an exit strategy from Iraq, and the possible increasing of Australian forces in Afghanistan to make up for the probable withdrawal of Dutch forces. Nelson’s answers were largely inaudible. What could be heard were broad statements about having spend $10 million on intelligence, the fostering of ‘fledgling democracy’ in Iraq, Afghanistan and Timor, and the inevitable accusation that Labor had failed to spend ‘enough’ money on its policies. This last was in response to the questions about Labor’s dental/health care plan – a plan which the Coalition does not, apparently, have in its own policy.

There was a fair amount of sledging going on in answering questions, too. Labor in government was, he accused, was unable to keep planes in the air, and half our our trains and trucks were broken down. He also asked, somewhat petulantly and disingenuously, ‘How come we can fight Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and not Iraq?’

Fitzgibbon, too, was reading from his party’s playbook, thanking everyone present and sharing a joke with the audience – in this case, ‘I bet you’re all grateful the election is coming up soon – especially the advertising blackout’.

His initial approach was oblique – a general denial of the ‘me-too’ label that the Coalition has attempted to attach to the ALP’s policies throughout this election. Drawing the differences between the parties on health, education, climate change and industrial relations, he also acknowledged that common ground between the parties should not necessarily be surprising – a nod to the oft-repeated ‘economic conservative’ strategy.

He went on to give the list of common ground – and carefully pointed out the small but (he believes) significant differences in their policies. The US-Australia alliance is critical to national security – but Labor would push for a greater level of independence. Greater procurement of defence materiel is important – but it must be part of a systematic program, not a series of ad hoc decisions. Higher numbers of recruits are important – but retention of personnel is a greater problem – and he announced the extension of health and dental care for families of ADF personnel.

The only area of complete agreement with the Coalition was on Afghanistan. We have to stay, said Fitzgibbon, and ‘we commit to that’.

Common ground dispensed with, Fitzgibbon got down to the criticism. He alleged the Coalition’s spending programs were full of cost blowouts, that the recruiting program was without structure, and that their failure to produce a Defence White Paper (which draws together all the facts and figures on defence spending, commitments and logistics needs) amounted to a ‘lack of strategic direction’. A Rudd government, he said, would immediately commission such a White Paper.

Finally, Fitzgibbon got to the issue for which the room had, undoubtedly, been waiting – Iraq. It was ‘sad’, he said, that the parties could not be bipartisan on it, but in Labor’s view, Australia simply does not have the capacity to lock up so many resources in this war (which he added in an aside was a mistake in the first place). Praising the troops, he said we needed to focus on the ongoing problems in Afghanistan and the region, rather than in the Middle East.

Fitzgibbon’s questions were somewhat kinder, although he repeatedly failed to come up with concrete policies on just how Labor would provide incentives to new recruits other than health care. His answers were as vague as Nelson’s, but where Nelson appealed to nationalism and ‘values’, Fitzgibbon – in keeping with Labor’s ‘looking after ordinary Australians’ focus – championed what he called ‘kitchen table needs’.

The single most telling point made in an otherwise largely uninspiring and uninteresting debate (even without the audio problems) came from Fitzgibbon. When Australia was asked to make a small contribution to peacekeeping and protection duty for aid workers in Darfur, the Howard government was forced to decline, because of our troop commitment in Iraq. This, Fitzgibbon said, was bad enough – but what about next time, especially if that ‘next time’ was in our region?

Ozvote ’07 – Foreign Affairs & Education debates

November 16, 2007

The debates are coming thick and fast. So is the increasingly strident rhetoric. Sadly, the policies are pretty thin on the ground.

Good examples of this came in yesterday’s two debates – between Alexander Downer and Robert McLelland on Foreign Affairs, and Julie Bishop and Stephen Smith on Education. Far from anything concrete which the voter could use to assess real prospects for the future, we got a combination of lies, damn lies and insults.

You’ll have to forgive me if my tone gets a little flippant or scornful. What I saw yesterday was – unequivocally – the low point of the campaign. So far.

First, the Foreign Affairs debate.

Downer opened with some stirring nationalism – our single pillar is Australia. (He didn’t explain what this meant.) After asserting that Labor had 3 pillars (again, not explained), he went on to give us the now-familiar Shiny List of Good Stuff the Howard Government’s Done. We have good relationships with countries in the region. We have doubled our exports. We have Free Trade agreements with the US, Singapore and Thailand, which helps us lift people out of poverty in other countries.

Then came the whoppers. According to Downer, the following can also be listed among the great Coalition achievements. We have secured our borders. We are fighting effectively against terrorism – in fact, we are dealing major blows to Al Qaeda in Iraq, and we have caused a ‘dramatic decline’ in terrorism in Indonesia. (In an aside, he mentioned offhandedly that he wouldn’t be making submissions to the Indonesian government to have the condemned Bali bombers’ death sentences commuted.) And we are leading the fight against climate change.

(I pause for the picking up of jaws from the floor.)

Labor, in Downer’s view, doesn’t like trade. It doesn’t like helping foreign governments. Its priorities are wrong. Labor wants countries to be dependent on us. It’s inexperienced. It’ll send us into an uncontrollable decline on the world stage. Only the Coalition can save us now.

McLelland’s opening–- again, now familiar with Labor speakers – was delayed by his detailed thanks to the Chair, the audience, his opponent and Mrs Downer, who was apparently present to support her husband. He commented on how governments of both ‘persuasions’ had helped build Australia’s international reputation. Pleasantries over, the knives came out.

The Howard government acts contrary to Australian values. We don’t lead the way in climate change – in fact, we are international pariahs for our failure to ratify Kyoto. We are not succeeding in Iraq – it’s a disaster, said McLelland, and rolled out the appalling statistics of civilian deaths, military deaths, displaced people and overall cost. He quoted former Australian commander in chief Peter Cosgrove and Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty, who have both said publicly that they believe our involvement in Iraq has increased the likely threat of terrorism.

McLelland warmed to his subject, condemning the Howard government for never clearly defining our objectives, for not supplying clear direction to our troops, for being the only government in the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ without an exit strategy, and for using the excuse that sanctions had failed to invade Iraq – when in fact, the Australian Wheat Board (whose export license was granted by Downer) was undermining sanctions with its kickbacks and rorts. Having delivered this indictment, McLelland used the last minutes of his speech to say that Labor would lead in global negotiations on climate change, and implement an exit strategy on Iraq.

Question time followed, whereby Downer repeatedly stated that the Iraq war is succeeding – or at least, getting rid of Saddam Hussein was a good thing, that he didn’t ‘deep-six’ a proposal for worldwide nuclear disarmament, that the techniques used by our intelligence and federal law enforcement agencies in interrogating detainees are ‘consistent with our human rights standards and civil liberties’–- and that his government objects if they see others not applying the same standards. (He did not, of course, mention the US government’s redefinition of ‘torture’.) McLelland reiterated his Message of Doom – the Asia-Pacific region is self-destructing, Iraq is a disaster, Iran has been emboldened by our meddling in the Middle East, and the sky is falling.

A moment of levity relieved an otherwise tedious debate of ‘is so! is not!’, when a journalist asked Mr Downer to speak French (a sly poke at Downer’s previous criticism of Kevin Rudd’s greeting the Chinese leadership in Mandarin at APEC). Downer obliged by introducing himself. McLelland, not to be outdone, quipped, “I can’t speak Mandarin – although I have eaten one or two in my time”.

The only other moment of interest was the question that utterly blindsided Downer – did he now accept that Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war was a mistake, and did he accept that there were parallels with the situation in Iraq as regards military action based on deliberately distorted intelligence? Knowing what he knows now, did he regret Australia’s involvement in Iraq?

Downer, clearly unprepared for the question to come in that form, floundered for a bit, laughing about ‘Oh no, I’ll be asked about the Battle of the Somme next!’. When he did answer, however, he reiterated his party line – Saddam=bad, invasion=good – without once answering the question.

McLelland’s response was stronger. On Vietnam, he was unequivocal – it was a mistake. On Iraq, he pointed out that even the US Secretary of Defence had questioned the decision to invade – and then he repeated his party line – invasion=bad, Iran=scary.

There was very little in the way of policy announcement during the debate – in fact, nothing we didn’t already know. The Coalition will stay in Iraq, and pursue Free Trade Agreements with many more countries, including China and India. Labor will pull 1/3 of our troops out of Iraq, leaving the rest in ‘overwatch’ and ‘support’ positions, but out of combat. Downer was self-congratulatory, McLelland was the Voice of Doom. And so it went.

Commentators noted afterwards that the two had been ‘playing for a draw’. The only difference was that Downer simply couldn’t avoid scoring an ‘own goal’ on Iraq – after all, he was hardly likely to undermine the party line.

The Education debate wasn’t much better.

Julie Bishop opened with the Shiny List, and the Dream for a Better Tomorrow. Mixed in with the ‘imagine this’ motif were the lies. In this case, however, her lies were even more outrageous than Downer’s. Australia is ranked in the ‘top handful’ of OECD countries that invest in their education system. The Coalition has increased funding for schools and universities every year since gaining power. It has ‘rekindled an interest in Australian history’. Universities are in the best financial situation ever.

(I pause again – are your jaws getting sore yet? Mine were.)

Bishop segued effortlessly from happy-fluffy land to warnings of Teh Evil on the horizon. ‘We’ must get away from ‘state parochialism’. ‘We must break the nexus between unions and schools and the “one-size-fits-all’ approach to teachers”’. ‘We’ must liberate universities from the Dawkins/Labor ‘straitjacket’ of mediocrity. Most alarming of all, ‘we must move on from the fads and ideologies of the past twenty years’.

Smith’s opening, too, followed the predictable path. Thanks Chair, thanks Opponent, thank you linesmen, thank you ballboys. (Dear me, I am getting flippant.) Like Bishop, he rhapsodised about the Possibilities in Our Future – and immediately followed it up with the counter-statistics. Australia does not lead the world in education in any way – in fact, we’re either stagnating or going backwards. Our secondary school retention rate has not increased from its current figure of 75% in the last decade, we have rated last or equal last for investment in early childhood education in the OECD for the last six years, university funding is down while HECS costs are up, teacher qualifications are declining, etc.

With all the sledging, it was hard to pick out the policies – more often, both debaters criticised each other’s ideas or challenged their figures. This is the best I could do.

Bishop – technical colleges will be increased by 100. Universities will be encourage to seek sources of funding from business, so they are not ‘dangerously reliant’ on one form of revenue. The ‘progressive curriculum’ developed to date in secondary schools will be systematically removed and a national curriculum, controlled from Canberra and approved by Federal politicians, put in its place. Teachers will be paid using ‘innovative salary models’ that ‘reward excellence’. And she reiterated the ‘parents deserve a choice’ rap – adding, this time, the nasty implication that applying a means test to education-spending tax rebates would prevent parents from choosing private schools for their children.

(I’m just going to break in here. This is an utterly outrageous lie. Means testing would not prevent any parent from making the same choice of schools. What it would do is prevent the wealthiest parents from gaining yet another tax break on something they’d be doing anyway. To suggest that means testing would somehow hurt ‘ordinary Australian parents’ is nothing short of deceptive.)

Smith – full-fee domestic places at university will be abolished. Absolutely no deregulation of fees with low-cost loans schemes to fund universities. A national school curriculum is absolutely necessary, but must not be written by politicians – under a Labor government, the curriculum would draw on the existing good programs and be mutually agreed to by State, Territory and Commonwealth governments as well as representatives of Catholic and independent schools. Existing teachers will be retrained and upskilled, and the image of the profession will be rehabilitated.

Smith also did something that rated highly with many commentators. When Bishop brought up the notorious ‘hit list’ of the Latham leadership (in which Commonwealth funding would be taken from private schools and given to government ones), Smith unequivocally stated that he accepted the policy was ‘wrong’ and ‘divisive’ – and guaranteed it would not be reinstated.

(Breaking in again. I liked the Hit List. I thought it was a bloody good idea for government funding to go to government schools, rather than supplementing the already comfortable financial position of private ones. Nonetheless, a willingness to own up to past mistakes counts for a lot.)

Yes, those were the highlights. Sad, huh?

The stand-out from both these debates was the level of lying that was undertaken by the Coalition speakers. Both Downer and Bishop flew in the face of all reports about the dire state of both our education system and the war in Iraq – and they did so without apology and without regard for the Australian people. Whatever the intended message, I think it’s fair to say that viewers came away from those debates with a sour taste in their mouths. No one likes being lied to – and no one likes being taken for a fool.

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