The debate between Abbott and Rudd mimics that between American presidential candidates. But the US analogy both distorts and reveals.
It distorts by personalising the election. Technically, very few Australians will get to vote for either man – only for his party. An American candidate actually has to win votes for him or herself. Whilst they represent their party they are not its leader in an institutional sense, as they are in Canberra.
An American candidate has an autonomy denied to his Australian counterpart. He (and eventually she) presents himself, rather a party platform, for election. Rudd and Abbott want to persuade us to vote for their candidate.
Obama was the point of the election. By winning, he was guaranteed a fixed term in office. Australian PMs come and go. Winning national election is nice but not necessary to being PM. Rudd has not won such a contest since 2007 and yet finds himself prime minister.
The comparison with US debates, however, also reveals some key similarities. Each candidate stakes much on being liked, as being the man the ordinary voter would like to have a beer with.
Abbott did a better job of this than Rudd last night. Neither man performed out of his political skin but the Liberal leader did at least try for authenticity. He stuck to the rules and avoided notes. He seemed to carry some conviction. You may not like his grin but it seemed real, unscripted.
Why was a politician of Rudd’s apparent grasp and experience looking down at his notes? No US candidate could survive this. In 2004, George W. Bush was lampooned following allegations that he had a secret ear piece during the opening debate with John Kerry – with the obvious implication that one of his advisors was helping him on difficult questions.
Rudd’s resort to tabulation – ‘Let me answer this in two ways … there are four basic undertakings … it’s not for two reasons,’ etc. – reminded me of Gordon Brown, a man with a boundless appetite for political power without the attendant capacity to perform well in it. The former British PM never developed an ear for voter concerns. Instead, he recurrently listed what he would do that was good for them. Brown’s are some of the worst political speeches in the English language – a study in enervation.
Neither Rudd nor Abbott plumbed these depths but they didn’t really tell us anything new about themselves either – except that Rudd can be nervy and Abbott is better than he fears he might be in this form of combat.
Did the debate echo any American one in particular? There are several contenders here. Abbott might have hoped to capitalise on the low expectations of his performance in the manner George W. Bush did in 2000.
The Texan governor was widely expected to be mauled by the mastery of detail Al Gore would display. Instead, the VP was seen as wooden and condescending. He rolled his eyes and sighed – a response which those who routinely debate enlightened progressives will recognise, and which ‘ordinary voters’ don’t like. They’d rather drink beer with Bush (despite his being a tee-totaller).
Carter-Reagan in 1980 also came to mind, with the caveat that Rudd is far from the loser Carter was and Abbott is some way from being an Australian Reagan.
In that debate, it was widely assumed that Reagan’s right-wing instincts would overwhelm the need for centrist pragmatism (a key ingredient of electoral success in US presidential elections). And that Carter, as the incumbent president, would dwarf Reagan with the trappings of office and policy grasp.
Instead, Reagan had the best lines and looked more convincingly presidential. He won in a landslide.
Kevin Rudd will hope his fortunes echo Obama’s in 2012. The President was widely seen as the loser in his first debate with Mitt Romney. He fought back in rounds two and three before securing a clear victory in the election.
Abbott, on the other hand, will need to channel his inner-Reagan.