Debates whack PM's electoral health

The results in South Australia and Tasmania were hardly what Kevin Rudd would have chosen; a large swing against the Labor Party could never be called welcome news, even if the wash up in South Australia at least was a lot better than the pessimists had feared.

But in the end the damage was more psychological than psephological. In both states the issues were very much local rather than federal and Rudd himself took no real part in the campaigning – nor for that matter did Tony Abbott.

A change of government in Tasmania may make the task of negotiating health reform more difficult, but in any case ending the blame game was already proving far harder than had been anticipated. In the end, having another Liberal Premier to help carry the can for failure might even be a political plus.

And in any case, there were more immediate concerns. It took a while, but the whacking in the polls for which Kevin Rudd had been pleading finally arrived last week.

It was a highly selective whacking: Rudd’s satisfaction rating fell to just 48%, with 41% dissatisfied – his worst ever result. Comparable figures for Abbott were 47 and 38; this meant, said his breathless cheer squad, enthusiastically led by The Australian’s Dennis Shanahan (who else?) that Rudd’s net satisfaction rating at plus 7 was now lower than Abbott’s at plus 9.

Why, you could even say that Abbott is more popular than Rudd. Well, you could, but this would ignore the rest of the Newspoll, which pointed out that Labor is still on track for a comfortable election win and Rudd is still preferred prime minister by 55% of voters, as opposed to 30% for Abbott.

But Rudd could now feel vindicated. Unfortunately, far from satisfying him, this taste of punishment seemed only to have stimulated his appetite. The masochist in him decided to wind up the parliamentary session by giving Abbott a giant free kick, and Abbott, declining to play the sadist, took it gleefully.

It is not clear which of the tactical geniuses infesting the Prime Minister’s office thought that inviting Abbott to address parliament on the subject of health reform was a good idea. The reasoning, if it could be dignified as such, was presumably that health was Labor’s strongest area, its preferred battleground, and this was where the government should concentrate the action.

True, but health was also one policy area where Abbott could claim both experience and expertise. He had actually been health minister for three years, and while he mightn’t have been a particularly brilliant one, he at least knew the tricks and traps of the portfolio.

And more to the point, Abbott is a performance politician, one who revels in the limelight. Inviting him to take the stage on his own terms was never going to be a good idea. In the event it was a minor disaster.

Not only did he deliver a melodramatic rant about the government’s failures, he took the opportunity to neutralise one of its more damaging lines, the one about how he, as minister, had ripped a billion dollars out of the hospital system. In fact, as Abbott pointed out, on his watch the Commonwealth had increased its funding; the catch was that the states had increased theirs more. Thus the Commonwealth share fell from 50% to 40%. To make up the extra 10% would have cost another billion dollars, which was budgeted in the forward estimates but ultimately not delivered. You could argue that it should have been spent, but you could hardly argue that it had been ripped out.

Abbott sat down to roars of applause from his backbenchers and Rudd replied; he had a lot more substance than Abbott but a lot less theatricality. As a result the media generally judged him the loser on the day. But like a punch drunk fighter he demanded more, and set up a full scale debate on the subject with Abbott on national television.

This was just plain dumb: he is on a hiding to nothing. If he wins, well, so what? He is expected to; that’s why he is Prime Minister and Abbott isn’t. But if he loses, it is a public humiliation and will be treated as such by the voters. Rudd should know: winning the televised debate with John Howard in 2007 confirmed his own claim on the Lodge.

In the circumstances it is the height of political folly (or perhaps hubris) to give Abbott the chance to get a foot in the door. At least one debate in the course of the formal campaign is both necessary and desirable. But to gratuitously throw in an extra one (or two) months in advance is simply foolhardy. This man needs help – or at the very least a new group of advisers.

Tony Abbott is a serious and sympathetic student of Aboriginal affairs, so it was somewhat surprising to hear him call for an end to Welcome to Country ceremonies last week. Abbott complains that the practice of white Australians beginning formal proceedings by acknowledging they are on Aboriginal land and Indigenous Australians welcoming them to it is greatly overused and has become tokenistic – a mere ritual.

Well yes, but so has the practice of playing the national anthem at sporting events or opening parliament with the Lord’s Prayer. Such rituals are still important to some of the participants, and should cause no offence to anyone else. Indeed, the only person who claims to be offended by Welcome to Country is the deeply sensitive Wilson Tuckey, purveyor of such quips as: “You know why we call them boongs? It’s the noise they make when they bounce off the roo bar.”

Like most of what is condemned by the far right as political correctness, Welcome to Country is simply good manners. It is entirely appropriate in an inclusive and civil society. Abbott should listen to his old mate Noel Pearson and back off.


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