Tony Abbott is calling for more debates with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. On the face of it, it’s a big heart tick for democracy. Debate and democratic health go together like reality shows and attention seekers. But like all good shows, there has to be a point — otherwise it’s just mindless chat.
And if this week’s health showdown is the best we can do in terms of live political debates, we shouldn’t be setting up more lecterns and water jugs any time soon.
Tuesday was a textbook autumn day in Canberra — bright, fresh and clear. But that pleasant vibe died at the entrance to the National Press Club, where Rudd and Abbott clashed live over the future of Australian health policy. While the debate ran over its allocated hour and kept political bums on the edge of their seats, it is difficult to understand how it could be seen as a success for anything other than midday television ratings and Rudd’s political stocks.
In his closing remarks, Abbott assessed that it had "been a good debate", while expressing his hope that people found it "interesting and instructive".
As the first out-of-Parliament debate between the leaders, it was always going to hold some interest, even if the two of them simply sat on the stage and blinked at each other. Indeed, it provided useful insight into the political match-up that will dominate the year. While they are no Keating and Howard, Abbott proved he’s got the better one-liners and Rudd confirmed he’s not shy about repeating himself when it comes to driving home a message. People who like hearing about "working families" and "mums and dads" were well catered for.
But labelling it "instructive" is going a step too far. With health professionals and the public already scratching their heads about what the two parties’ policies actually are, the debate was about as helpful as an Ikea toolkit in Swedish.
In part, the debate’s incoherence was due to its setup. Based around questions from journalists in the audience, it was more of a two-man Q-and-A session than a fully fledged debate. The leaders were often responding to different questions and at times had to butt in to comment on their opponent’s questions.
Not only did this make things scatty, it made it incredibly easy for the leaders to avoid answering anything.
Politicians are experts at avoiding questions at the best of times. Any observer of question time knows that only the foolish actually answer the question they were asked but the health debate’s structure didn’t help them kick the habit.
In his opener, Abbott argued that "our job is to make a difference, not just to strike a pose." Maybe what he really meant was, "our job is to strike different poses," because there certainly were plenty of contortions on show at the Press Club.
With only one shot each, the journalists’ questions were a mixed bag but even when decent grenades were lodged over the parapet, Rudd and Abbott managed to dive out of the way.
The Daily Telegraph‘s Sue Dunlevy tried to pin the leaders down on publicly funded dental care. In "reply", Abbott talked about what he did as health minister, the need to balance the budget, pink batts and schools halls. Rudd talked about the Howard government, blamed the Senate and concluded by saying the Government didn’t know yet.
The Australian‘s Matthew Franklin asked the Opposition Leader if taxes should be lifted, as with the paid maternity scheme, to increase funding for health. Abbott waxed lyrical about the importance of a strong economy and the danger of unions. Jane Azzopardi of Channel Nine asked about bed numbers and Rudd talked about the need for more doctors and nurses (again).
Rudd won the debate thanks to Abbott’s crazy laugh and more emotional ploys than a Disney movie — from working families to sick little ones, sick grandparents, sick pensioners, country hospitals and the fact that his Mum used to be a nurse
But it can hardly be seen as a display of political vibrancy. What we were left with is a clear understanding from Rudd that the healthcare system is broken, with a loose plan that they will be fixed by greater federal funding of hospitals and more training for doctors and nurses.
Abbott’s policy is yet to be announced but we know he wants less bureaucracy, more local control … and that some actual details will follow sometime before the election.
It is both ironic and frustrating, in an age where we can get information on virtually everything, that our leaders cannot tell us anything meaningful about their major policies or communicate their ideas in a manner that allows us to understand them.
Abbott’s parting shot to Rudd was to challenge him to uphold his commitment to three debates during the election period. Yesterday the Opposition Leader followed up by calling for more debates on various subjects in coming weeks.
He will not be the only one keen for more. As a ready-made circus, the media love them. Moderator Chris Uhlmann introduced the debate as an "unexpected pleasure", and there was the opportunity to roll out the worm again.
While Rudd has demurred on the subject of more debates with Abbott, all federal Labor MPs and candidates in marginal seats have been instructed to challenge their rivals to town-hall style debates on health policy.
But you have to wonder what the moral of the story is.
Hopefully deep down, democracy is the winner. Yet on paper, all that happened was that the Australian political scene dropped everything for a debate in which the participants spent their time answering questions that were different to the ones that were put to them.
Rudd was declared the winner because he was the one who turned up with the closest thing resembling a policy and made the most references to kids and grandparents. In the meantime, everyone was left none-the-wiser about what the future of healthcare would or could be.
Until we can have set debates which yield genuine policy detail and understanding, let’s leave them to pub-goers, comedians and high school students.
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