For an event that’s only happened about half a dozen times in Australian political history, the ritual of televised elections debates has come to feel unfailingly tedious and predictable. After affecting nonchalance and indifference in the lead up the political class experience a Damascus road conversion at the 11th hour and begin devouring ever morsel of pre debate hype before the real event begins and then hang on to the candidates every word hoping against hope that this time they’ll be treated to Demosthenes versus Aeschines. Invariably though disappointment ensues, the candidates are measured and disciplined and spectators are left wondering what might have been.
Yet the debates are not pointless, in the United States last year some energetic and positive performances slingshotted Mitt Romney into contention after his campaign appeared to be drifting while in the UK Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg owes much of his Deputy Premiership to his barnstorming performance in the opening debate.
In Australia we have an interesting history of debate winners (as judged by the press gallery and sometimes the worm) losing the general election. Andrew Peacock, Paul Keating, Kim Beazley and Mark Latham were all judged to be clear winners before then going on to lose the upcoming election. I attribute this to a mistaken belief that impressive television theatrics necessarily translates into electability. Mark Latham in particular was and still is very engaging on television. He’s relaxed, witty and articulate and if asked who won the argument between Latham and Howard in 2004 you’d have to say Latham won it hands down. But if you asked a more awkwardly worded question “Based on their performances in the 2004 election debate, do you think John Howard or Mark Latham would make a better Prime Minister” you’d have to say Howard seemed more considered, pragmatic and sensible whereas Latham exuded something more risky and less reassuring.
In 2010 Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd debated health policy at the National Press Club. It was shortly after Abbott had become Leader of the Opposition and Abbott went into the debate expecting something of a dogfight, instead when he turned up Rudd was all smiles and politeness while Abbott was left looking both unpleasant and immature. It was a brilliant ploy by Rudd and his team but they probably sprung the trap a little early.
The Abbott we’ll see this evening will be on the lookout for these sort of tactics and Rudd supporters hoping to see a repeat of the 2010 debate will be sorely disappointed. The leader of the opposition will be well armed with some market research about what voters don’t like about him and will have trained heavily to avoid falling into those traps. Nevertheless Rudd will try to bait Abbott a few times so expect the words “condescending” and “patronizing” to feature in a few post debate assessments. Rudd will probably outperform Abbott, he is a more fluent speaker than the Leader of the Opposition but most pundits will probably adjudge Abbott to have exceeded expectations.
Given that Abbott is unlikely to get very argumentative the most important part of the debate will be how Rudd does on the economy. Whether Labor can win the election in September rests heavily on whether they can persuade the electorate that they are competent economic managers. Wayne Swan and Julia Gillard were unable to do this but Rudd is a very different politician to Gillard and Swan. His economic rhetoric is less generic and more self styled but he’s liable to reduce economic discourse into folksy cliché’s, Rudd cannot afford to do that tonight. He needs to wax lyrical about economics and embrace its complexity. Only then will he be able to persuasively make the case that it is beyond the capabilities of Abbott and the Liberal Party to manage the economy to the standard which Labor has done.