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The televised debate

Nick Bryant | 10:30 UK time, Monday, 26 July 2010

Does Julia Gillard pass the "What does she stand for" test? After more than a month as prime minister, and an hour of to-and-fro in the first and only televised debate of the 2010 campaign, it is a question that is being asked more frequently, and with no obvious answer. Rather like Kevin Rudd, she runs the risk of coming across as a political manager rather than a national leader: a prisoner of the polls rather than a prime minister of forceful conviction.debate_ap.jpg

Watching the debate, she became animated on the question of education reform - the child of immigrants, she clearly believes that a decent schooling offers the quickest route to personal, social and national advancement. But on other issues, from immigration to the environment, she appeared to be sticking to a political script that was written in accord with Labor's internal polling and focus groups.

There's a paradox here. Gillard clearly believes that this is safe politics, but it is the very thing that undid her predecessor. Kevin Rudd lost the respect of much of the Australian electorate - terminally so - when he back-flipped on the government's plans for an emission trading scheme. The widespread view, whether you agree with anthropogenic global warming or not, was that he had abdicated his leadership on the issue.

Julia Gillard, in advocating a citizen's assembly to fashion a national consensus on climate change, may well have repeated the same mistake. Certainly, the policy has invited scorn and ridicule. Paul Kelly of the Australian, the dean of the political press corps, called it a "joke". Bernard Keane of Crikey called it: "Truly wretched." A new Galaxy Poll for the Melbourne Herald Sun suggested that 62 per cent thought that the citizens assembly pledge demonstrated that Gillard has "difficulty making decisions".

On Sunday, the Sydney Morning Herald published a highly critical piece under the headline "The Incredible Shrinking Julia". On Monday, the Australian published a new poll - taken before the television debate - which showed that the Coalition is closing. Labor had a 10-point lead at the start of the campaign. According to the latest Newspoll, the gap is now just four points.

As for the debate, the fabled "worm", which measures the responses of a small group of wavering voters, handed it to Julia Gillard - 63% to 37%. But the commentariat was impressed with the performance of Tony Abbott. Certainly, the Liberal leader was much better than in his last debate outing against Kevin Rudd. He was less caustic, less mocking and much more user-friendly. Noticeably, in his opening statement he mentioned his wife, Margie, hoping no doubt to improve his standing amongst women, a real area of vulnerability. He would have hoped that his advocacy of paid parental leave would have had the same effect.

Some other quick observations. Viewers tuning in for the first time, who knew absolutely nothing about the country, could be forgiven for thinking that Australia is being besieged by boats - that an armada is arriving daily. Do people really worry about boat people and asylum seekers that much?

They might also have been struck by the number of times the phrases "fair go" and "fair dinkum" were trotted out. But overall, they would probably have found it rather dull, unenlightening and lacking in humour or wit.

One of the journalists on the panel, Chris Uhlmann of the ABC, who is one of the best inquisitors in the business, posed the courage question to Julia Gillard - he asked for an example of personal political bravery. Tellingly, she replied that the creation of the My School website, which allows parents to judge the performance of various schools, fitted that description. But while opposed by the teachers' union, it had the overwhelming backing of parents. Arguably, Tony Abbott came across as the politician of greater conviction and more passion.

The Canberra press gallery is clearly itching to write the Abbot comeback story, if only to make the next four weeks interesting. Journalists always like to invest a campaign with drama. His better-than-expected performance in the televised debate, combined with the first major poll of the campaign, lends that narrative more credence. But Julia Gillard can also claim some authorship for the simple reason that many of her compatriots are starting to wonder "what does she stand for?"

PS Masterchef was watched by over 4 million people last night - 3 million watched the leaders' debate over the various channels that covered it. They saw Adam Liaw, a media lawyer from South Australia, triumph.

PPS Thanks for your good wishes.

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