Kevin Rudd cheats with notes to narrowly win first debate

SUNDAY night's debate was not a debate. It was a joint news conference and a dull one at that. There was not the head-to-head exchanges and jousting that a genuine ''debate'' requires.

There was no knock out, no big break though, little new information. It's hard to see that anyone would change their vote, or even recall much of it in the morning.

Also, Rudd apparently broke the rules by using notes.

In my mind, Rudd narrowly "won" the encounter. But to get any benefit he needed to trounce his opponent. Moreover, the row about the Rudd notes was taking off tonight in the popular media.

The last thing Rudd needs is the accusation that he cheated the system. That is gold for Abbott when the PM is already being ferociously pursued by the tabloid media.

On substance, Abbott was handicapped by what he was never going to do - that is, give his costings.

More significantly, he seems to be pledging that the GST would not be changed under a Coalition government. The Coalition policy is for a review of taxation in the first term, which would have the GST on the table, and then take any tax changes proposed to the following election.

Is Abbott is now giving a longer term commitment of no change? That is what he has seemed to be saying in recent days, and quite strongly tonight. This is something that needs clearing up.

The Daily Telegraph reporter on the panel, Simon Benson, asked a very Sydney-based question about Sydney airport which Rudd treated dismissively.

He said there were more airports in the country than Sydney and more issues to the productivity agenda. How this plays out in Sydney remains to be seen.

Rudd, a recent convert to gay marriage, went hard on the issue, indicating there would be a bill brought forward in the first hundred days of a re-elected Labor government, with Labor MPs having a conscience vote.

Abbott was able to say that his gay sister was in the audience but could not say yes to a conscience vote for Liberals. That would be up to the next party room, he said.

Abbott started the day of the leaders' debate by running a 14-kilometre City to Surf, acting as guide to a visually-impaired man.

Exercise is for Abbott politically toning - all the better when combined with a good picture opportunity and a gesture of goodwill. And there was some Coalition money announced for life saving thrown in.

For Rudd the campaign had hit a rugged patch by the weekend.

Yesterday saw two ALP candidates bite the dust for bad behaviour. Ken Robertson in Kennedy (Bob Katter country) had accused Abbott of being bigoted and said he hoped Australia ''never has to suffer his Catholicism''. There was little doubt he had to go.

But it was more complicated and contentious in Hotham (which Simon Crean is vacating). Labor candidate Geoff Lake once swore at a woman in a wheelchair during an altercation at a council meeting. The incident happened more than a decade ago, and has been well canvassed since.

Lake has served as the president of the Australian Local Government Association and the local government representative on the Council of Australian Governments.

One would think if he were suitable to sit in COAG with state and federal leaders he would be OK to be a Labor candidate.

But when the incident made headline in the Herald Sun (the Murdoch press again) it was all over for Lake. Rudd said in a statement that he had asked the party's national executive to remove Lake.

"The national secretary has informed me that he is not satisfied that there has been that there has been full disclosure about these previous matters".

Lake's dumping is an over-reaction from a campaign on the defensive.

Fortunately for Rudd (but unfortunately for Lake), this affair came early in the campaign; if it had arisen next weekend, with nominations closed, the ALP candidates would not have been able to be changed.

That's what happened to the Liberals with Pauline Hanson in 1996 - she was dumped by the Liberal party but stayed on the ballot paper with a Liberal tag, which helped her get across the line.

The weekend polls brought bad news for Rudd with both the Nielsen and Galaxy polls showing him trailing.

There was also a feeling in Labor circles that he had not made the most of the first week's campaigning - that he had got sidetracked. The stoush with Rupert Murdoch was seen as unproductive.

The scare campaign about the prospect of a GST under Abbott has not really got traction - except to the extent it has led to the opposition leader giving a commitment that, if he becomes PM, he might eventually regret.

Meanwhile, this day of the election campaign has reinforced the need for a Debates Commission.

Michelle Grattan AO is one of Australia's most respected and awarded political journalists. She has been a member of the Canberra parliamentary press gallery for more than 40 years, during which time she has covered all the most significant stories in Australian politics. This article was first published at The Conversation


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