2013 AU Election, Sam Greenland

Greenland: Rudd wins Australian Leaders’ Debate

Judge: Sam Greenland

Winner: Kevin Rudd

Score: Rudd 75 | Abbott 71

Reasons

Kevin Rudd (KR) won a largely disappointing debate through much better use of evidence and examples to back up his arguments and to provide rebuttal. Tony Abbott (TA) lost credibility at key points in the debate by refusing to provide evidence for claims, in particular on his economic and budgetary policies. KR effectively rebutted several of TA’s policy arguments, notably on border protection policy. TA also made a poor strategic choice to attack KR’s past policies instead of promoting his own plans for the future, yet without stating clearly what he would have done differently. This meant that the debate was largely held on the record of the incumbent government, on which KR was able to play to his key strength, command of detail.

This was an often disappointing debate, with both leaders ready to descend into platitude and a lack of forward-looking policy discussion, often quite obviously ducking direct questions. Good moderating and an intelligent format meant that genuine engagement did occur from time to time, but too often it was on veracity of minor detail rather than challenges about major directions of policy. There were, however, a few moments of genuine clash, and when those clashes did occur it was KR who came out on top through better command and use of evidence to back up his points. For example, TA’s statement on turning back asylum-seeker boats had a key caveat, one which KR identified and comprehensively dismantled in one of the best rebuttal instances from the debate.

In a debate which both participants and the panel agreed was largely about the economy, admitting to a lack of evidence behind your tax/spend policies is a significant disadvantage. TA even passed up an opportunity, given to him by one questioner, to repeat evidence he’d presented in an earlier speech. KR took full advantage of this strategic error both rhetorically and in his content. Time and again KR gave specific examples to back up statements, whereas TA made vague statements.

KR was also able to shift the ground of the economic debate onto the question of productivity, an area in which he had strong evidence to put forward and on which TA had fewer responses, notably on the question of increasing productivity without decreasing tax revenues. KR produced plenty of detail on past and future policies in this area (the NBN, Fair Work Act, investments in agribusiness) whereas TA was stuck on a rhetoric of cutting taxes and regulation without being able to explain the detail of his proposals.

Obviously the incumbent has strong list of policy achievements to point to which challenger does not, but TA could not clearly articulate those past policies with which he disagreed, nor could he detail their replacements. In fact, when either candidate did make firm commitments to future policy, KR was clear and direct (e.g. a conscience vote on same-sex marriage within 100 days of a new parliament) whereas TA was equivocal (on climate change, aged care and budgetary savings).

Both speakers chose a style which was measured, authoritative and unemotional. This style matches best to content which is detailed and thorough, and hence KR came across as more assured because of his greater command of his material. Style was not, however, a major differentiating factor in the overall result.

 

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