Sunday, September 12, 2004

One Worm. 90 People

Watching the 'Great Debate' tonight it quickly became obvious why Howard wouldn't agree to more than one event, and was particularly concerned to face a room of swinging voters. According to the worm, they don't want to face him come October 10 either.

The result isn't a surprise: Howard typically suffers in a debate performance. But I have to say he looked particularly uncomfortable tonight, particularly when he was called on to explain his policies on health and education. It seems the only thing that could invigorate him was to bag Mark Latham: then he looked positivley sparky, squinting his eyes, leaning forward, waving his hands around and generally talking without a pause.

But whenever the focus switched back to his domestic record, his demeanour altered noticeably. He lent backwards, away from the panel of jounalists. He ummed and licked his lips. And he couldn't pronounce the tongue twister 'full fee paying', mangling it to 'full fee faying.' And he tried twice.

The subjects in the debate ranged from national security (this took up the first half an hour), hospital funding and medicare, education, family tax payments, Howard's longer term plans, and trust in Government.

I thought that Latham was a clear winner. He was far more relaxed. He could quantify his policy statements by referring to concrete figures - 80% of people missed out on the budget's tax cuts; Labour will bring the bulk billing rate back up to 80%. And he had the good sense to wait until 8.20pm before pulling out the ladder of opportunity.

When not talking about Latham's failings, Howard was most at ease talking about the economy. His opening speech was interesting, beginning with the 1.8 billion medicare package, then seguing to the Government's economic track record (because of course you can only deliver on social policy when there's money in the bank) and then sliding from economic to national security. He seemed to want to through down the gauntlet, by putting his weaker point up front, as he did by declaring that the election would be about 'trust.'

Yet Howard wasn't comfortable, and he wasn't statesmanlike. After being baited twice, he seemed to admit that John Anderson was right in his statement earlier today on the Sunday program that Australia was a greater terrorist target thanks to our participation in the War on Iraq. He got excitable over the GST when Neil Mitchell asked him about what he was planning to do about the crisis in the public hospital system (I thought he was going to claim that the GST is the best thing that's ever happened to hospitals, but sadly he stopped himself just in time).

Overall, Howard looked shaky. He was happy to diss his oppponent, but strangely reticient about talking up the social and domestic policy agenda of his Government. The only thing that energised him was the medicare safety net, and that was only because it gave him the opportunity to claim that Latham wanted to take it away.

In fact, watching the debate, I couldn't help but think that Howard is so used to negative campaigning and electoral fear that he is only truly comfortable to frame public discussion in those terms.

I wish the worm had been available throughout the debate, because it made fascinating viewing. The only pity was that the audience weren't able to speak for themselves. The conservative Annabel Crabbe (whom I normally find entertaining) was pointless. She seemed to give it equally to Howard and Latham, even when it was clear that the '90 swinging people' didn't see it that way, and it seemed fairly plain that Howard was uncomfortable at points.

I don't know that this debate will tip the election. But I welcome the fact that despite Howard's best attempts, the two leaders did get to meet head to head, and did get to finally canvass some of the big issues facing the Australian electorate. And I'm heartened that 90 people saw fit to believe that, on the day, Howard can be bested.


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