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Rooty Hill people’s forum: experts respond

Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott have faced off in a televised debate for the third and final time this election campaign. AAP/Lukas Coch

Prime minister Kevin Rudd and opposition leader Tony Abbott faced off tonight for the third time in the 2013 election campaign at the Rooty Hill RSL Club in Sydney’s western suburbs.

In the town hall-style debate, Rudd and Abbott took questions from 100 undecided voters, covering economic management, Labor’s leadership, education funding, paid parental leave, dental care, aged care, election promises, disability care, underemployment, environmental safeguards, foreign ownership of agricultural land, trade and superannuation.

Kevin Rudd talked up the government’s economic credentials and its ability to pull the nation out of recession. He dismissed claims of policymaking on the fly during the election campaign.

Tony Abbott focused on the opposition’s infrastructure plans in his opening address but later said he would rather under-promise during the election campaign and over-deliver when in government.

When asked what question the leaders would like to put to each other, Abbott said he would like Rudd to give voters a positive reason to vote for him “rather than just run the mother of all scare campaigns which has been the dominant theme throughout this election”.

Rudd responded by asking Abbott to release the Coalition’s 200 policies and its budget bottom line.

Our experts were watching the debate. Their comments follow.

Tom Clark, Senior Lecturer in Communication at Victoria University

Tonight was far and away the best debate of the three. Pity it was the last; pity the last two dreary affairs have so strongly persuaded voters not to take notice.

Both the questions and the answers came clear and fast this time. The sixth question came inside 20 minutes tonight, compared with 40 minutes last week.

Tony Abbott was sharp on several points tonight. He distanced himself from the “waffle” he rudely rebuked Kevin Rudd for seven nights ago. He quite reasonably pointed to Rudd’s negativity — I counted four mentions of the word “frightened” in the prime minister’s opening address.

But Rudd, for all his waffle, was conspicuously the stronger contender. He managed to corner Abbott into dodging more questions than him, just as he subtly cornered him with body language. Rudd continuously walked into Abbott’s zone on the dais; he offered a cheeky smile and a handshake – awkwardly declined – when he asked Abbott to vote Labor.

Last time around, Rudd would have won a dismal affair, just off the back of Abbott’s snarking, until his own rudeness towards a makeup artist became the issue. After tonight, it will take something much bigger to eclipse the debate win — but how much does this help his struggling cause, when so many have switched off an underwhelming campaign already?

Andy Ruddock, Senior Lecturer, Research Unit in Media Studies at Monash University

The star of tonight’s people’s forum wasn’t Kevin Rudd or Tony Abbott. It was Ian. Ian took both leaders to task on their fiscal common sense, and then probably enraged much of the audience with a sexist crack about subsidising “pretty little lady lawyers”. Every (wo)man and panto villain all in one. Perfect.

We didn’t know it would be Ian. But we should have known it would be someone like Ian. Television guaranteed it. Amidst concerns about the Murdoch media, the people’s forum powerfully represented a much more important sort of media power: the power to define what politics is and how it happens by organising voters as audiences and performers. Voters don’t get to speak, think, or become visible until they can play these roles.

The winner of the forum? Television.

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

Tonight we returned to the setting of 2010’s first “people’s forum”: the Rooty Hill RSL Club.

Town hall-style debates offer an unpredictable element: “the people”. The presence of “ordinary” undecided voters (carefully selected by Galaxy Research) means that tried-and-true responses often sound hollow and sharp or aggressive retorts are out of place. Hitting the right tone is the key. It is imperative to balance being approachable with appearing “prime ministerial”, to answer audience questions simply without being condescending, and deliver substance without drowning in detail.

Both leaders have had some practice with this now, and tonight managed moments of connection, humour and warmth. Kevin Rudd, in particular, seems comfortable in this setting. He was more relaxed than his opponent and more engaging than in most of his other campaign appearances. Rudd thrives on the crowd and feeds on their energy (though at times this wanders too far into folksiness, and his opening story about “young James” who was building the Australian future was particularly awkward).

Don’t underestimate the role of the moderator in these forums - David Speers is an active participant. He cautioned audience members at the outset that he wanted to get through “more questions” than last week and policed wandering off topic or waffling, both in questions and responses.

Speers also won the first audience laugh of the night, asking whether the prime minister would stop “running a line” on cuts to Medicare Locals after Tony Abbott explicitly ruled it out.

Hosting these debates is a coup for Sky News – they allow the network to position itself as the home of election coverage in Australia.

Last week’s people’s forum debate added some excitement to a campaign that has been less than inspiring. People’s Forum II: Return of the Leaders was worth watching, but delivered little in the way of new information or insights for voters.

David Holmes, Senior Lecturer, Communications and Media Studies at Monash University

With a guaranteed larger commercial TV audience and the bare-knuckle billing that the last debate was given, Kevin Rudd must have skipped the make-up from Sky News as he looked much more confident this time, kicking off with a personal story of his Loyola College visit “next door to the RSL”, and finishing with a critique of Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme.

Abbott began with his disciplined repetition of scripted sound bites - “we will end the waste”; “stop the boats”; “cut the tax” - but the slogans subsided when he exchanged with Rudd. Oddly, Abbott declared his loyalty to a western Sydney constituency, rather than addressing the national audience. Abbott didn’t risk repeating a personal attack on Rudd - as he did in Brisbane - mindful that playing a straight bat, here and on the campaign trail, is all that is needed to move into The Lodge.

The first two questions were a grilling for Rudd: one on the leadership change and the next on deficit, which he handled better than Abbott did the thorny question of costings for Coalition pledges. Abbott later had an accountability question on whether he would honour the Coalition’s promises on which he was unconvincing, wavering between keeping promises and drawing down the deficit.

Rudd was accused of “policy-on-the-run” by one questioner: whether he had consulted on the Northern Australia tax haven, high speed rail and the Navy move from Garden Island to Brisbane, which he had to deflect.

But Rudd was much stronger on employment and environmental policy, with a command of facts and figures that offered more practical remedies than Abbott’s vague solution of “building a stronger economy” and the Coalition’s Green Army policy of making Australia “beautiful” which didn’t connect with the issue of climate change.

Both leaders finished with scripted lines of vision and critique that added nothing to what we have already heard in the campaign.

All in all, Rudd’s weakness was having policy-on-the-run brought up, which pointed to a disorganised campaign; whilst Abbott had no answer at all to climate change, an issue which has had little or no coverage during this entire election campaign.

Joseph Fernandez, Head of Department, Journalism at Curtin University

This debate, like the earlier two, was preceded by the usual anticipation couched in the language of a “face off” and going “head-to-head”. Minutes before the debate ABC24 crossed live to a reporter on the ground for an update on the “atmosphere” at the scene.

The event itself, however, was more sober and measured this time. Two indicia of this are worth mentioning.

One was the palpable restraint in making election commitments. Tony Abbott, in response to a question concerning assistance for small business, declined to make a commitment. He said it would be “irresponsible to promise something that isn’t funded”. He went a step further when answering a later question saying he was “determined to under promise so that people are likely to be pleasantly surprised rather than disappointed”. Mr Rudd likewise admitted in response to a question that he did not believe he could “do much better for younger people” in relation to access to superannuation funds.

The other indicia was how, amidst the inevitably adversarial nature of the campaign process, both leaders acknowledged that major governance milestones can be achieved through consensus and bipartisanship. One such milestone was the establishment of the NDIS. Mr Rudd not only acknowledged the Coalition’s support of it but also the work done by his predecessor Julia Gillard and her team.

Happy families.

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