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The Great Debate

Nick Bryant | 07:36 UK time, Tuesday, 23 March 2010

The Rudd government has a new strategy to win the upcoming federal election. It is to encourage Tony Abbott, the famously outspoken new opposition leader, to speak as much as possible.

Last week, the government used its parliamentary majority to move a motion compelling Mr Abbott to immediately orate for ten minutes on the topic of healthcare. When the time was up, the government allotted him an additional five minutes, presumably in the hope that he would impale himself on his own tongue.

Tony Abbott

In the same week, Kevin Rudd challenged Mr Abbott to a televised debate on health reform. Again, the thinking appears to be that the more exposure he gets - and I'm not talking about his penchant for appearing in Speedos, or budgie smugglers - the more opportunity there is for self-sabotage.

Kevin Rudd has been forced to mount a counter-attack because of polling figures which show that his prime ministerial approval rating has for first time slipped to below 50%. That and state elections in South Australia and Tasmania which saw big swings against Labor.

The focus on healthcare is partly substantive, in that the Rudd government has just unveiled a new approach to the funding of hospitals and the provision of primary care.

But it is also strategic. Healthcare is one of those touchy-feely issues that conventionally favours Labor. The government also has a published policy, whereas the opposition has yet to reveal its proposals. As an added bonus, the healthcare debate has diverted attention from the disastrous home insulation scheme and the ongoing debate over climate change, which, in the short-term at least, has hurt the government.

For this televised debate, broadcast on Tuesday lunchtime from the National Press Club in Canberra, we not only got to see Mr Rudd and Mr Abbott, but our old friend, "the worm". This is one Australian animal that I am more than happy to report on, for it gauges audience reaction to what the leaders have to say.

The worm clearly judged Mr Rudd the winner. Indeed, the prime minister regularly found its g-spot. It liked Mr Rudd delivering the folksy stuff about how reliant we all are on public hospitals, it responded particularly well to the words "waiting lists too long", and loved his invocation of Australia's fairness doctrine (it was off the scale for his second mention of the phrase "fair go", which is always a winner in these climes).

The worm appeared to take offence at Tony Abbott. It did not like his jokes - I'm at a huge disadvantage, he claimed, "because I'm not capable of waffling for two minutes like the prime minister" - and was repelled by his negativity. Such was its downward trajectory, that at one point the worm looked like it was going to leave my television screen altogether and seek refuge in my home stereo system.

Kevin Rudd seemed to appreciate that television debates are fought in lounge rooms. Tony Abbott's put-downs were better suited for parliamentary consumption - the sort of caustic one-liners that delight the backbenches but do not really work for people sat watching on their sofas.

The rules of the Australian worm are do not go negative, do not talk in policy jargon, talk about real people, tell homespun stories and never mention the word "tax.". Doubtless the same rules apply elsewhere.

For a fuller, worm-free, account of what was said, here are a few reports.

Post-debate coverage can admittedly by terribly worm-centric, but for what's its worth the Channel Nine invertebrate called it 71 to 29 in the prime minister' favour. But it is worth pointing that the worm favoured Kim Beazley in 2001 and Mark Latham in 2004. Both went on to lose the election.

Throughout this year the Liberals have lampooned Kevin Rudd for being "Prime Minister Blah Blah", but the government seems to think that Tony Abbott will talk himself out of a job. Judging by the outcome of this debate, the government's strategy may have yielded its first outright success. After three months of negative headlines, the worm may have turned.


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