September 13, 2004 | Graham

Howard loses debate by huge margin – what is he doing?

I remember the 2001 leader’s debate. On my scoring, and that of the “worm”, Howard lost. Later that week I realised that in a way he had won. The people in the studio audience weren’t those he was talking to. He was broadcasting to the sort of person who voted for One Nation, and they weren’t me, and they weren’t the people with their fingers on the worm. The theme of national security, and Labor’s weakness on it, hit home so strongly with this group that it didnt matter what the rest of us thought.
This debate I was waiting to see if Howard tried to talk directly to the fringe urban aspiring working class voters who used to make up the One Nation constituency, but if he did I couldn’t see it. In fact, there was nothing that I could see to indicate that Howard was talking to any constituency.
Latham’s presentation was poor and under-done for a man who wants to be Prime Minister, but Howard left him alone, never even really touching on the themes he has established so far in his campaign. Opening with a pitch on Medicare and how Australians need to have a strong economy to afford better services was a little bizarre.
Based on our research, Latham gave Howard plenty of opportunities to ram home messages. For example, despite a consensus that no-one should use the Jakarta bombing for political mileage, that was exactly what Latham did in his opening remarks. Surely Howard wasn’t so stunned that he couldn’t have pointed that out and capitalised on it. Then there was Latham’s absurd observation to Laurie Oakes that under Labor we would be out fighting terrorism at the roots, by smashing JI and finding Bin Laden, and he was going to wrap it up in three years. Surely the PM could have raised the dangers of pre-emption, and asked Latham how many of the countries he would need to operate in have given him permission to do that. These two men are running for PM of Australia, not Mayor of Liverpool Council, off-the-cuff exaggerations like this aren’t appropriate.
Voters are concerned that Latham is a flake, that he is inexperienced, that he talks without thinking or knowing, and that he is a closet Liberal. Howard could have implied just in answers to the issues to do with the war on terror that he was all four, but he didn’t. Likewise, Howard didn’t deal with his own negatives when he could have. For example, on whether he would stay another term he sounded evasive.
To deal with the issue of his truthfulness he could have picked Latham up on his exaggerations, and there were plenty of them. Despite that he must know by now that the figure is wrong he continued to assert that 90% (even 100% at one point) of families will be better off under his tax plan, even though we know the real figure is 70%. He tries to fudge the issue by claiming that there is a difference between weekly and annual figures which is such a poor fudge that it deserves to be ridiculed.
Latham was also running the line that he intends to deal in positives, even though most of his speech was directed at negatives. It’s a tactic that Labor uses frequently in Queensland, and it only works if no-one points out the reality.
So, why didn’t the Prime Minister go on the attack or aggressively canvass his positive case? I still don’t have a theory which entirely convinces me, but perhaps he didn’t want to be seen to be trying to monster Latham. Perhaps it is part of playing the statesman. The Liberal Party may be content to let its advertising do the talking, and didn’t want their man getting his hands dirty, in the process reinforcing voters’ opinions that he is overly ruthless and manipulative. The Liberals may also be looking to time the build-up in their campaign so that it peaks much later. We’re a long way from the time when most voters will be paying attention. If you run your best lines in a debate it might help the other side to anticipate what you are planning to say.
Howard’s team may have reasoned that he only needed to avoid a knock-out blow to really win. There may even have been elements of the famous Muhammad Ali “rope a dope” strategy of letting your opponent wear himself out, as well as giving him a false sense of confidence.
Perhaps Howard really isn’t a good debater.
Perhaps. Whatever the reason, I think that last night’s debate was bad for Howard. It has given Latham credibility because he mixed it with the Prime Minister and came off better. It has also given him a personal confidence boost, as evidenced in his ebullience today. In the 1984 election it was Peacock’s performance in a debate that gave him the edge over Hawke. He didn’t win the election, but he won the majority of votes, and that after starting the campaign a long way behind. This debate may be a similar turning point in this campaign, particularly as all the polls suggested that Latham started the campaign even or ahead, not behind.

Posted by Graham at 10:55 pm | Comments (3) |
Filed under: Australian Politics


  1. I’m not sure why Howard doesn’t want anymore debates this election, especially if one could be organised between Costello and Crean, Costello’s natural ‘charisma’ would really have it over Crean who isn’t the best in front of a camera. The positives out of this would be that the leadership debate would go to the background and it would remind everyone that Crean is the alternative Treasure (which from what I’ve read is a minus for the Labor party for some reason).
    What do you think?

    Comment by matthew byrne — September 14, 2004 @ 12:17 pm

  2. The problem that a leader has is that a random abberent comment could cost him all of the gains he automatically has in being the PM and this could cost the election. The opposition has no such constraint – what does he have to lose?
    I don’t think that John Howard is a natural debater and the stilted format of these debates allows him to feel safer but doesn’t leave him the opportunity to show his forte which is “scrapping”. This he does best in the house.

    Comment by Tom — September 14, 2004 @ 2:07 pm

  3. Matt, if Howard is not comfortable with the TV debate format, or perceives it as risky, then he’s not going to want any more than he can help, irrespective of who does them. If Costello agrees and does well, then there could be pressure back on Howard to do another.
    I think there is something to what Tom’s saying. Watching Latham today, he’s looked a little Keatingesque. Very ebullient. Not what his minders would have wanted.

    Comment by Graham Young — September 14, 2004 @ 11:44 pm

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