And the winner is … in the eye of the beholder

The DrumIn my post for The Drum this week I’ve looked at the Leaders’ Debate.

In the broader scheme of things, last night’s Leaders’ Debate will unlikely have much impact on the final outcome of this federal election.

For many disengaged voters, not yet fully aware the election campaign is now upon us, the televised event may have inconveniently delayed their local news program or more likely passed them by altogether as they tuned into their usual Sunday night fare.

Nevertheless, the event sets the tone for the week ahead.

The team with the candidate thought by the political media and pundits to have ‘won’ the debate will head into the second week of the campaign re-invigorated by the endorphins that only a winner can experience.

With public opinion polls suggesting a slight downward trend in support for Labor since the reinstalment of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister, it would appear Team Rudd needs the boost more than Team Abbott.

This was evident from the demeanour of both men at their respective podiums during the debate.

Rudd gave the impression of being on edge: constantly referring to notes, cramming as much information as he could into every answer, and constantly using Kabuki hand gestures that distracted the viewer as much as illustrated his answers. Rudd clearly knew his stuff but showed little sign of rehearsal (which is a common weakness in those who over-prepare).

Abbott, on the other hand, delivered his opening remarks with the casual confidence of a well-rehearsed public speaker. By looking down the barrel of the camera, he chose to engage the ‘viewers at home’ rather than the audience. The cadence of his voice was deliberately lower and slower, most likely to emphasise Rudd’s higher tone and speedy monologues.

Why mention these elements? Surely what the men said is of more import?

Well not exactly: audiences respond as much, if not more, to how something is said than the actual content.

Incumbency gave the Prime Minister an edge when responding to the questions of economic competence and policy – it’s much easier to point to an existing government’s achievements than foreshadow the benefits of a hypothetical one.

However, Rudd’s constant listing of those achievements (as he had done on ABC’s 7.30 just a few nights before) was the aural equivalent of trying to take a drink from a spouting fire hydrant.

In contrast, Abbott stuck to his tried and true method of repeating the simple but memorable policy mantras his team had no doubt carefully honed through numerous focus groups.

As an opposition leader not yet prepared to unveil the bulk of his party’s policies and their costings, this was all he was ever going to do and so the contrast of policy detail and lack thereof was particularly stark.

Both men told their fair share of porkies (for example, Rudd again raised the now discredited $70 billionCoalition budget black hole, while Abbott claimed the GST cannot change without the consent of all the State and Territory Governments*) and completely evaded a number of direct questions from the moderator and/or the panel (for example, on raising Australia’s emission cut target from 5 per cent if other countries take action).

Both men ended the debate as they started, their closing comments echoing the tones they’d struck with their election opening gambits just one week ago.

Rudd signalled challenging economic times ahead and that his return was needed to guide the nation through the New Great Economic Transition. Abbott repeated there was nothing wrong with Australia that couldn’t be fixed by a change of government.

Rudd seemed to have gained no confidence from the hour’s exchange, while Abbott’s final delivery was more stilted and sing-song than his opening, perhaps from being unnecessarily rattled by the question on marriage equality.

In the end there can be no winner, as audiences will seek and take different things from any such exchange. Those looking for reassurance for more of a stable Labor Government will have seen it, whereas those looking for a new approach from a competent alternative will have found that too.

And so the outcome of the Leaders’ Debate, like most things in the politics, will entirely be held in the eye of the beholder.


Author: Drag0nista

Political columnist at The New Daily | Editor of Despatches & AusVotes 2019 | Author of On Merit, a book on the Liberals' *women problem*. Former Liberal staffer and industry lobbyist. Studying the entrails of federal politics since 1989.

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