Leaders’ debate: experts respond

The first televised leaders’ debate between Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott of the election campaign focused predominantly on economic issues. AAP/Alan Porritt

Prime minister Kevin Rudd and opposition leader Tony Abbott have faced off in the first televised leaders’ debate of the 2013 election campaign.

In a debate largely framed by the economic issues, Rudd pressed Abbott on his promise not to raise the Goods and Services Tax (GST), while Abbott accused the Rudd government of “killing” the resources boom through policy measures such as the mining and carbon taxes.

On the vexed issue of asylum seekers, Rudd denied that dismantling the Pacific Solution of offshore processing was a mistake, but instead claimed that changing international circumstances - such as a civil war in Sri Lanka - were the cause of a dramatic influx in the number of arrivals by boat.

Rudd also promised that a bill to recognise same-sex marriage would be introduced to parliament in the first 100 days if an ALP government was returned.

Our experts were watching the debate. Their comments follow.


Tom Clark, Senior Lecturer in Communication at Victoria University

This feels like a disappointing night out for Kevin Rudd. The government has been losing popular momentum for several days. A turnaround in the opinion polls has unsettled the Labor team, and they really wanted a win tonight to get their campaign, er, moving forward.

Quite unlike the opening salvos a week ago, Tony Abbott was the more energetic contender tonight. Without getting overbearing in his swagger or letting his aggression turn personal, he was consistently more switched on than Rudd.

Rudd, so bubbly a week ago, was showing little of that blithe feistiness tonight. He did not engage directly with Abbott, or with anything that Abbott had raised tonight, until 47 minutes into the debate. That was when he finally warmed up to the moment, but I suspect it was far too late for the bored denizens of voterland.

This points to a broader problem with the campaign. Rudd’s fairly lightweight engagement with “the facts on the ground” clearly struggles to meet Abbott’s hard hitting disregard for them.

Time is steadily leaking away for this federal government. It is not a violent rush right now, but the flow may get faster over the days ahead.


Roy Green, Dean of UTS Business School and University of Technology, Sydney

The fundamental appeal of Kevin Rudd since his restoration as prime minister has been his ability to combine a more realistic assessment of Australia’s post-mining boom predicament with a sense of hope and optimism about how we might tackle it. While this repositioning of the Labor government initially wrong-footed Tony Abbott, reducing the scope for “relentless negativity”, its success in an election context depends on a clear and credible economic policy framework.

The problem for Labor is that their policy framework locked in Howard government tax cuts of A$169 billion from 2005-06. Even if the tax/GDP ratio had been held at the 23.7% operating at the time of the 2007 election, it is unlikely we would now be debating budget deficits as we would not have one. We might instead be taking advantage of historically low interest rates to fund increased investment in research and innovation, and to prepare for a more internationally competitive, diversified knowledge-based economy.

However, tonight’s debate focused on which party was better placed to fund ambitious commitments within a timetable for returning to budget surplus, as the tax take recedes before their eyes. The fact is that neither party can predict if and when the budget will return to surplus within a specified period. Paradoxically every attempt to do so by reducing public expenditure will only compound the problem by dampening economic activity still further, counteracting the effect of low interest rates.

Australia’s major challenge in the years ahead is to address the low growth scenario set out by the Reserve Bank in its latest quarterly Statement on Monetary Policy, as result of falling terms of trade, a global downturn and the failure over a 15 year period to identify and capitalise on future areas of technological change and innovation. Of course, there are some shining examples of entrepreneurial success, and of smart policy initiatives such as Enterprise Connect and the new Innovation Precincts program, but a structural deterioration in our productivity performance has been masked by the temporary windfall gains of the commodity boom.

In this election campaign, the parties should be judged by their capacity to meet the challenge of long-term growth and jobs, and the health and education needs of a changing population, rather than an artificially imposed, counter-productive budget surplus commitment. In recent years, there have been some path-breaking reports on our vision of the future as an advanced economy in the fastest growing region of the world, such as Australia in the Asian Century. Do Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott share this vision? On the evidence of tonight’s debate, it is very hard to tell.


Natalie Mast, Senior Policy Analyst at University of Western Australia

Unable to choose between Chanel 9’s “worm” and 7’s “viewers’ vote” options, this commentary is based on my viewing of the debate via ABC24, and thus I am somewhat ignorant as to how the punters viewed the performance of either leader.

I am giving the first round of this pretty dull debate to Rudd. That said, I don’t think Abbott was damaged in the debate, and so he is likely to emerge only slightly bruised.

If this were a soccer match I’d say it seemed that Kevin Rudd had possession of the ball at least 65% of the time. The warning bell definitely rang more often for Rudd than Abbott, who seemed willing to wrap up answers before his time expired.

Both leaders appeared nervous, but overall Rudd has a smoother delivery than Abbott, and I think he was aided by his hand movements, which suggest an effort to explain a multi-faceted argument, even when the argument ends in a three-word slogan.

If I can digress and be shallow for a moment, someone should be sacked for allowing Tony Abbott to face the nation with a crooked tie.

There are a few reasons why I thought Rudd won the debate. Despite the turmoil of the last Parliament, and the fact the he was prime minister for only the last sitting day, Rudd was able to provide a pretty positive story about what the Labor government has delivered over the last six years:

  • No recession during the GFC
  • Nearly a million new jobs
  • Over 100,000 additional students at University
  • National Broadband Network
  • National Insurance Scheme

Rudd managed to produce a very nice link to NBN and its role in Aged Care, especially for caring for people in their own homes, illustrating a non-business/non-high speed downloading benefit of the infrastructure.

Rudd also took a stand and declared that within the first 100 days a vote on same sex marriage will be held and it will be a conscious vote for the ALP. This was in contrast to Abbott, who declared it an important issue, but made it clear he wouldn’t be bringing it to the floor of the Parliament anytime soon. Rudd looked like a prime minister in this moment and a politician of conviction.

Without the benefit of being in power over the last six years, Abbott lacks the ability to cherry pick good news items. That said, during his closing remarks Abbott referred to his plans for the country, which the Liberal Party has developed over a number of years.

At the end of this debate, I am not sure how much more the Australian public would know about the details of those plans. Again, we heard the stock standard phrases “Stop the Boats”, “Scrap the Carbon Tax” etc, none of which sound particularly positive, probably because they’ve become soundbites used to attack the government over a number of years.

Abbott needs some big picture showpiece: too bad he has refused to fund any form of suburban rail, there’s nothing like a fast train or light rail to capture the imagination of the voting public!


Stephanie Brookes, Lecturer, School of Journalism, Australian and Indigenous Studies at Monash University

“We want this to be a genuine debate,” moderator David Speers insisted in the opening moments of tonight’s broadcast. “A genuine contest of visions.” Watching this first election debate, however, there was little in the way of vision from either side.

In his opening statement, the prime minister positioned himself as the inheritor of the Labor legacy and reached out to the young “dynamos of the future”. Tony Abbott, self-consciously looking down the barrel of the camera, reassured us that this election is about “the people of Australia”.

But as the debate wore on, there was little to catch the imagination, create momentum or keep the audience engaged. The prospect of questions being taken from social media did not eventuate. The broadcast itself was dull, the set and structure evoking Australia’s first election debates in the 1980s.

Tony Abbott spoke slowly and clearly (too much so, at times). While the prime minister was on edge from the outset, his opponent seemed more relaxed. Rudd rustled his papers, Abbott stalled for time. Both were frequently interrupted by the assiduous time-keeper’s bell.

The candidates needed to outline a clear narrative of the nation’s future that would resonate with voters. Mired down in details and quibbling over small issues, there were no risks taken – and little ground won.


Zareh Ghazarian, Lecturer, School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University

The leaders’ debate is a relatively new phenomenon in Australian politics, with the first occurring in 1984 between Labor prime minister Bob Hawke and opposition leader Andrew Peacock. The idea is borrowed from the system in the United States where presidential debates have been a feature since 1960. The format makes greater sense in presidential systems where voters directly elect their head of government. In the Australian case, leaders’ debates serve to reinforce policies and principles the parties wish to pursue as well as test how a leader performs under pressure.

The candidates are meticulously prepared and, even if they have a mental blank, can rely on their “stump speech” (a message or broad idea that they’ve already aired many times before) to get them through tricky situations.

In this context, the debate between Rudd and Abbott served few surprises. Both leaders sought to remain controlled and statesman like. Rudd once again proved to be a calm and articulate speaker. He successfully balanced his attacks on the opposition with reference to his positive policies. Abbott also performed effectively and was obviously guided by the principle of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

Abbott was slightly less formal in tone and kept attacking the government’s performance and reaffirmed the Coalition’s broad ideas that have proven popular with the electorate over the last three years. Both leaders performed strongly in the tactical battle of attacking their opponent and defending their positions when necessary.

While there will be disagreements about who “won” the debate (and partisans will have clear views about who they feel did best), it did, at the very least, allow both leaders to be viewed in their raw and unedited states. Whether this will have any impact on voters’ intentions and the remaining campaign is yet to be seen.


Mark Rolfe, Lecturer, School of Social Sciences and International Studies at University of New South Wales

We’ve all encountered the game six degrees of separation, particularly how many steps it takes to get to Kevin Bacon.

Well now there is a new game: how many steps does it take Kevin or Tony to get back to their slogans.

Aged care? No problem for Tony. Although he quickly admitted there were no big differences with the government in matters of aged care, he still insisted that cutting paperwork was the general panacea for problems in that sector. Magically, it would release many dollars for caring for old folk. After all we’re a great country full of great people. The nature of the new economy? Revive the building commission, which seemed to be a magic pudding for a whole lot of problems now afflicting Australia. I didn’t realise the magic that stopped when Julia killed it!

Badgerys Creek airport? No problem for Kevin. After stuff about Workchoices to get his last word to Abbott’s previous answer, he turned to electricity gouging, infrastructure, NBN, and it’s all a matter for Albo.

Both men wanted to appropriate certain areas as their strengths. So for Abbott “we invented offshore processing”; a ready team in waiting, with a ready plan to cut spending, previous experience. For Rudd it was health, education, NDIS, saving the country from the GFC, and climate change.

So for both men their attempts were to reinforce (ad nauseum) their messages that have been around for months now, probably with the old nostrum in mind that when voters are starting to vomit, that’s when you’ve got their attention. So we heard Kevin so many eggs in one basket that it must have please the chook industry.

Hard questions - such as Badgerys Creek; Ken Henry’s view that governments regardless of colour are facing structural deficits that need to be addressed by both spending and revenue decisions; how to raise productivity; how to deal with international agreements that increase cuts in carbon emissions; spending on aged care for an aging population; about how the New Economy of the future will be sustained – all these and more were batted off to the keeper.

Important issues were raised but neither man wanted to be pressed about these harder issues, especially Abbott on plans for cutting spending or for assurances about the GST. They are similar on matters of size of government – Rudd repeated statistics used many times elsewhere - but they had to demonstrate vast differences there.

Certainly Rudd did wish to add statistics to treat people seriously and complications such as the push factors that drive asylum seekers. And Abbott wanted to “keep it simple stupid” with repetition of slogans. Complex issues like productivity and push factors are too hard to deal with in such fora.

But the verdict is that this was just positioning after the first week after the government lost some of its direction. Neither man wished to expose too much so early in the campaign. But both wished to display their sympathies and support for families doing it tough, even though statistics show the rises in income of many households is ahead the rises in expenditure over the last years.

Found this article useful? A tax-deductible gift of $30/month helps deliver knowledge-based, ethical journalism.