The experts are poring over the results of tonight’s leadership debate between John Howard and Kevin Rudd and the early view is that opposition leader Kevin Rudd “won” it. Although victory in the debate has not often translated into electoral success, it will be another pleasing indicator to the Opposition camp. Rudd has a lead in the opinion polls and faces a government in stasis after 11 years in government.
The two leaders debated for 90 minutes in the Great Hall of Parliament House framed by the giant backdrop of the words “The Leaders Debate”. It will be the only such opportunity for the pair to speak together with five weeks remaining of the campaign. While having just one debate is normally the prerogative of the incumbent administration determined to deny "oxygen" to the opposition, commentators as diverse as Richard Farmer of Crikey and Andrew Bolt of News Ltd have suggested that Howard, behind in the polls, would have been better off to accept Rudd’s demand of three debates.
Tax and the economy dominated the debate. Both sides released their tax policies in the opening week of the campaign and Howard’s $34 billion tax cut promises were mostly matched by Rudd $31 billion alternative. Howard claimed Rudd has voted against most of the government’s economic reforms and is a recent convert to the cause. Rudd quoted Reserve bank chair Ian Macfarlane to demonstrate his credentials and accused Howard as Treasurer of running mortgage rates at 22 per cent.
Rudd confidently answered all questions except for the ones related to climate change. Rudd waffled when asked what markers Labor would use to measure progress to its long term carbon emission targets to 2050. Rudd was so wrapped up in the detail of his immediate message to clearly enunciate his longer term vision. By contrast, the supposed climate unfriendly Howard impressed when he strayed dangerously close to making policy with his promise to compensate low income earners for rising electricity prices under policies designed to curtail emissions of greenhouse gases.
Nonetheless the pair mostly parried each others thrusts. The real story of the night was Channel Nine’s decision to ignore the government stipulation that the debate feed had to be “clean” (without the on-screen “worm” which measures audience reaction in real time). Nine were denied a direct feed but resourcefully pirated a feed to show the debate to the largest audience watching the debate under its banner of “60 Minutes”. Nine's director of news and current affairs, John Westacott, said the decision to cut the feed "blatant political censorship "It's not the preserve of the Liberal party to make editorial decisions for Channel Nine," he said.
But the worm was the real winner. Green’s leader Bob Brown was not invited to take part said the worm would “add a little something organic” to the debate. Left-learning blog Larvatus Prodeo agreed. They held a chatroom where people had the chance to live blog on the debate. The word “worm” appeared 240 times in the comments in 165 minutes (up to 10:15pm). With five weeks to go in the election campaign, it is difficult to know whether for all its importance, the worm has actually turned.