Rudd lifts his performance in an all-round better bout

Given the chance to engage directly with people and each other, both leaders put on a good performance. AAP/Alan Porritt

The Rudd-Abbott face-off at the “people’s forum” was a much better contest than the tortured first encounter before a panel of journalists. The two engaged with each other; there was more spontaneity; the Brisbane forum contained some real “debate”.

They were closely matched but Kevin Rudd is likely to get more out of the clash because he put in a solid performance after a bad first half of the campaign. His team has been deeply worried that he has been nowhere near good enough - a poor showing tonight would have been a disaster.

That the opposition saw little in it for them seemed to be summed up by Liberal pollster Mark Textor’s tweet: “Draw. Yawn. No difference. No change”.

For Rudd, this was a pick-me-up, and one based on his punching through Labor’s negative line that Tony Abbott is preparing to slash health and education.

There was some speculation that Abbott’s interjection, “does this guy ever shut up?” was all about reinforcing the perception (and reality) that Rudd blathers.

To me, it just sounded ill-disciplined and rude, costing Abbott marks in an assessment of how he went. And Rudd’s riposte – “we’re having a discussion mate” – was effective. Abbott didn’t look too happy when questioned afterwards about his crack.

At times, they both went out of their way to be conspicuously civil to each other, like a couple of school boys whose mothers had warned them against misbehaviour. They even strained to note the odd point of agreement, to show how reasonable they could be.

Change the metaphor and you could see here a couple of boxers in the ring, with s few neat punches and counter punches.

Abbott thought he’d scored with his gibe, “Mr Rudd has just said that you can’t walk away from a price on carbon, but that’s precisely what you did Kevin, in April 2010”. But Rudd had the better of that exchange, hitting back with, “Tony, you voted it down twice in the Senate”.

Rudd didn’t miss any chance to conjure up the spectre of Abbott as the future ruthless cutter. “In this gathering tonight Mr Abbott, what people want to hear is where are you going to cut”, a question the opposition leader is not yet prepared to answer. This is at the heart of the Rudd campaign now, and it will take the next round of opinion polls to get an idea about whether it is taking hold.

Abbott disputed that he had hacked into hospital money when health minister, and he recalled the Gillard government’s adjustment of the hospital funding formula that caused an almighty row with Victoria. More importantly, he gave the commitment “of course there will be no cuts to the hospitals”. (Another unequivocal commitment was that the Coalition wouldn’t withdraw from the refugee convention.)

Abbott faced a hostile question on his costly paid parental leave scheme, defending it in his familiar terms as “a watershed reform”, and likening it – an overblown comparison – to the introduction of the aged pension. Rudd foolishly and inappropriately asked for a show of hands of women in the audience earning $150,000 a year, but got in a few points about the scheme being inequitable.

If the hour prompted more questions in voters’ minds about what Abbott might do, Labor will be happy. Immediately after the debate, a message went out from Rudd to ALP supporters: “If you were wondering if we can win, tonight made it clear. When challenged on their plans, the Coalition are weak.”

On the other hand, relatively few people will have watched; the debate was organised and hosted by Sky, a pay TV channel and received limited coverage elsewhere. To the extent it has an effect, that’s likely to be within the political beltway, putting some heart into the ALP. As one Labor MP said (he hadn’t seen the debate himself because he had been out campaigning in a desperate effort to save his marginal seat), “People are more interested in what’s going on in the fifth test”.

Abbott had forced Rudd into appearing at the forum. Rudd had wanted a series of debates on the commercial networks. While he was on his best behaviour, his lack of enthusiasm was obvious. When moderator David Speers said there would be another debate, this time at Rooty Hill (with each candidate appearing separately), Rudd did not signal whether he would be there (he surely will have no choice, just as he didn’t tonight).

At the end Abbott said he would stay to mingle and answer questions there hadn’t been time for. Rudd worked the crowd too, but left before Abbott.

Possibly this was significant. In the initial votes submitted by the audience of undecided voters Rudd was ahead. But when all the votes were in, Abbott led 37-35 with 33 undecided. Did his diligence in staying sway a few votes in those private moments?