Abbott The Brawler Struggles In Debate


Style versus substance. Confrontation versus diplomacy. Plain talking versus grasp of detail. Yesterday’s healthcare debate at the National Press Club gave us more evidence, if any were needed, of the contrasting styles of the two major party leaders.

Casual observers of federal politics must be wondering why health is suddenly such a big issue. The answer is that the Government has very deliberately made it one. After a poor summer in which Labor struggled after the defeat of its emissions trading scheme and the disaster of the Copenhagen climate change conference, the Government made the calculated decision to shift the terms of the political debate. 

The new tactic has therefore been to talk about health, and to attempt to engage Tony Abbott in debate about health policy at every opportunity. Last week, the Government even suspended the normal standing orders for question time to allow an unusual parliamentary debate on health policy. Kevin Rudd then sprang a surprise challenge to Tony Abbott for a televised health debate.

It was a calculated gamble — debates always are. Many would have predicted that the Prime Minister, with his plodding style and penchant for waffle, would suffer in an open debate against Abbott, a clever communicator who is typically quick on his feet.

But Labor’s tactic appears to have worked. It helps, of course, that health is one of Labor’s traditional strengths, as the polls continue to demonstrate. It also helps that the Opposition continues to struggle when it comes to policy detail — or any detail at all.

Given this, the format of yesterday’s debate played well to Rudd’s strengths. The Prime Minister’s opening speech in particular was carefully prepared and well delivered. It allowed him to paint a clear and compelling picture for those watching in their living rooms of why health reform was important, as he spoke of the anxiety experienced by any parent when "your little one has an accident at school". This is the retail politics that Kevin Rudd proved so adept at during the 2007 election campaign.

More importantly, the debate format also played to Tony Abbott’s weaknesses. The opposition leader’s combative style and tendency to deliver smart-aleck comments can amuse political insiders, but it also risks repelling casual observers. While muscling up to the Prime Minister has undoubtedly gone down well inside the Liberal Party, and also plays well to the Coalition’s conservative base, Labor’s strategists clearly believe that it has the capacity to alienate swinging voters. This is what is behind the recent efforts to give Abbott ample opportunity to display the confrontational side of his personality, while the Prime Minister politely drones on with the details.

And then there was the worm. Rudd consistently "won" on the dubious metric, particularly on Channel Nine’s audience meter. As The Australian‘s Samantha Maiden told Sky News, "the worm hates Tony Abbott", particularly when he went negative and attacked Rudd. The worm may have next to no validity in any statistical sense, but it tends to shape the media debate and influence the perceptions of those watching —one reason why I prefer the worm-less Sky News feed.

When it comes to the policy substance of the debate, Rudd clearly dominated. In one respect, this was to be expected. The Prime Minister is a policy wonk who is comfortable ticking off his government’s various initiatives. It’s worth pointing out that while the government is often criticised for its love of big policy inquiries (often represented as spin rather than substance), yesterday’s debate demonstrates the benefits of doing the policy hard yards. After two years of deep immersion in the health portfolio, the Prime Minister showed an admirable grasp of the detail and looked in command of his brief.

In contrast, despite being the federal health minister for five years, Tony Abbott could not present any concrete policies yesterday and struggled when pressed for detail. While he blustered in response to Rudd’s accusation that he had "ripped $1 billion" out of hospital funding as minister, Chris Uhlmann tellingly forced him to admit that federal funding as a percentage of the total pie had indeed fallen under his watch.

Abbott certainly landed some punches. His point that no extra hospital beds have appeared despite Labor’s extra funding to the states is a good one, as was his point that Rudd’s goal of changing the federal-state funding split from 40–60 now to 60–40 later won’t end the blame game; in Abbott’s words, "all this fuss is about a mere percentage shift".

But all too often, Abbott walked straight into the ambush of negativity that Rudd had so carefully laid. As I remarked last week, because the Opposition has been so tardy in developing new policies over the last two years, Abbott has the difficult choice of either making policy on the run, or simply stating that "you will have a comprehensive policy well before the next election." Perhaps a smarter strategy would have been to come up with a small but deliverable policy announcement for today’s debate. Instead, Abbott spent a lot of time attacking, which is exactly what Labor wanted him to do.

The broader significance of this debate is likely to be small. It’s months before the election and, as I’ve consistently argued this year, the Government is not in trouble and Kevin Rudd remains a popular prime minister. In that respect, a positive result for the Government in this debate only reinforces the status quo.

But it can also be argued that one of Tony Abbott’s few political advantages since coming to office has been a media commentariat generally well disposed towards his standing and style. Today’s poor showing may start to erode that media support. It will encourage Labor to continue attacking him on his record on health. It also highlights one of the big unanswered questions about Tony Abbott as Opposition Leader: can he appeal to swinging voters in marginal seats? If the cliff-hanger Labor victory in South Australia on the weekend proves anything, it is that the marginal seats are still where elections are won and lost.

One final point: after yesterday’s result, it’s worth asking just where the Prime Minister was during last year’s emissions trading debate. If Kevin Rudd had shown the same sort of engagement last year as he showed yesterday, might the CPRS result have been different? Leadership does matter on difficult issues, as the experience of both today’s debate and President Obama’s health care reform triumph on Sunday showed.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.