Monday, August 5, 2013

Rudd throws down a glove but Abbott ducks challenge - The Age

As a boxer at Oxford University, Tony Abbott adopted the approach of a whirling dervish. ''I just went in, arms flailing,'' he recalled late last year. ''My intention in the ring was to knock them out before they had the chance to do the same to me.''

There was a time when Abbott applied the same approach to politics, but not any more. One day into the campaign, and already he is getting under Kevin Rudd's skin by refusing to engage.

The day Rudd returned to the Labor leadership, he invited Abbott to debate him on what was presumed to be the Opposition Leader's preferred topic: debt and deficits.

In the days that followed, Rudd attempted to coax his opponent into televised debates on any other issue Abbott chose, including the one that has been an electoral winner for the Coalition since 2001: stopping the boats.

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Abbott had none of it. Call the election, he said, and then we'll debate all you like. So it was unconventional, but utterly unsurprising, that the incumbent broached the subject when he called the September 7 election, suggesting a televised debate a week for the five weeks of the campaign.

Abbott's refusal to oblige betrays a confidence he is in the box seat to become prime minister and a determination to minimise the risk of error. ''There will be, as far as I'm concerned, at least three debates - and every day I am debating Mr Rudd,'' he said. ''I went out, I did wall-to-wall radio and television this morning and in every one of those interviews Mr Rudd's words were thrown up at me and I was debating Mr Rudd.''

This is a novel concept of debating. Indeed, of the three occasions Abbott proposes to be on the same platform as Rudd, only one will be a debate in the traditional sense. Whether this will change will depend on who generates the momentum in the opening weeks of the campaign. Both, it must be said, made unremarkable starts on Monday.

Abbott, wearing his trademark white shirt and light blue tie, returned to the issue that has served him well in the past. He also offered just a hint of hubris, announcing that he had written to the head of the Prime Minister's department to say that the first act of an incoming Coalition government would be to repeal the carbon tax.

Why would he feel the need to do that? Doesn't he think diligent public servants are watching the campaign and preparing to respond to the result?

Rudd is yet to hit the hustings, but still managed to commit $650 million in promises. He, too, was wearing a white shirt and a blue tie and over-egged the rhetoric - declaring a plan to improve before and after school care would not only help families meet cost-of-living pressures, but was all about ''preparing the economy for the future''.

Both leaders attempted to score points off what the other had said, but it was no substitute for a real debate. The closest Rudd will get to one in the first week of the campaign is a debate with other contenders for his Brisbane suburban seat. Not much will be at stake there.


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