After supporting Labor in the Federal election, Crikey is leaning back towards the Liberals in Victoria which might explain our view that Robert Doyle clearly won Friday night’s debate. We thought it was quite decisive – but our politics expert, Wendy Wedge, begs to differ. Read her response below.

Premier Steve Bracks started well but then faltered in the second half and proceedings couldn’t have finished fast enough for Bracks as he signed off looking lame ducking a second debate.

The big question is whether Doyle can get some momentum from his victory and the first substantial exposure most Victorians have had to him. Unfortunately for Doyle, many commentators bought the Steve Bracks line that he won the debate.

He hit all the right buttons ranging from speed cameras, to union influence, budgetary management and the do-nothingness of the government. However, he lost points for referring to notes at the start and the end and waving his arms around too much.

The coverage in the big-selling Saturday papers was not decisive as Bracks claimed victory and some of the observers supported him. It will be old news by the time talkback kicks in on Monday morning and Friday night ratings for political events are always a tough ask with the audience rising throughout the evening but averaging about 375,000.

Bracks showed no vision. There was no sense of urgency or passion. Where was the second term agenda? You got a sense that he was polite and conservative but Doyle was a stark contrast, projecting energy and decisiveness.

Bracks also failed to clobber Doyle enough for the Kennett legacies. Where was the pride about returning openness and decency to government?

For that matter, Doyle should have sprinkled his retorts to comments about Kennett’s cuts with constant references to Labor almost bankrupting the state.

WHO IS COSTING THE FIGURES?

The Bracks government has the upperhand on this front as PriceWaterhouseCoopers is a more credible auditor of spending promises than Doyle’s option of Professor Neville Norman who really is yesterday’s man in many respects and has worked for a succession of Liberal governments. Then again, PWC employs people like former Labor senator Stephen Loosely so we hope he is not involved in the costings.

Bracks secured Access Economics to cost their promises in 1999 which was quite a coup and Doyle should have gone for a respected firm rather than an individual. However, this detail will slide through to the keeper as everyone focuses on the broader debate.

HOW DID THE PANEL PERFORM?

Ian Henderson did a good job moderating the debate but the panel of four journalists was almost superfluous. The hacks would have spent much of the day worrying about their live hour-long appearances on television but in the case of The Age’s Ewin Hannan, he only asked two questions for the entire hour.

The Herald Sun’s John Ferguson is also not an experienced television performer and it would have been better to have a smaller panel with more interjecting and persistent questioning. As a TV debate, maybe they should have opted for the four television reporters who cover state politics every day. The ABC should have also had a 10-15 minute segment immediately after the debate analysing how the two leaders performed.

WHERE DOYLE WAS STRONG

Doyle’s answers were more concise and he managed to slip in plenty of sledges that hit the right buttons. A little dig at the Seals Rocks fiasco when talking about contracts, a sledge on quality with education, a slap at the CFMEU over the blowout in costs at the MCG, the line about spending being up 30 per cent since Labor came to office.

There were some issues that Bracks needed to get off quickly. The MCG construction deal was one of them, as was revenue from speed cameras and government advertising where he stumbled badly but how do you justify what was a blantant rort anyway.

BRACKS PORKIES

Both combatants stretched credulity on occasions and Bracks continued with this false line about Victoria having the strongest financial position of any state. Queensland leads the category by the length of the straight because it has the lowest taxes, fully funded superannuation schemes and no net debt.

Similarly, the Bracks claim that Kennett sacked 800 police is just wrong. There were no compulsory terminations of police and not that many redundancy packages either.

However, Bracks did well in questioning Doyle’s police numbers claims because it is true that Kennett promised 1000 extra police on the beat and then cut the numbers by 800 so Doyle’s promise to add another 1050 on top of the 800 Bracks has put back looks hard to believe.

DOYLE PORKIES

Doyle needs to be careful on a few fronts with some of his claims. He tripped up on crime stats shortly after becoming leader and continues to push this line about Bracks adding 17,000 bureaucrats to the payroll when this has been rejected by commentators such as The Ages Tim Colebatch. You should not include Federal government employees in these figures. Doyle should just come out and say that Bracks is an old-style tax and spend operator rather than coming up with figures that strip out the numbers for teachers, nurses and police. Make the point but don’t fudge the numbers.

DOYLE LACKS CREDIBILITY ON SPENDING

Doyle is already running into problems with his promises. He’s keen to reduce the reliance on gaming, there will be no new tolls, stamp duty on homes will be cut and we’ll also get the 1050 extra police without the budget blowing out.

You either accuse Labor of spending up big whilst offering prudent budget policies yourself or you claim the budget is fine and you spend up. But you can’t have it both ways and Doyle needs some more discipline on the budget front or he’s going to break a lot of promises.

THE BUSH

It was a good move having Tim Lee from Landline on the panel asking questions about regional Victoria. Doyle should not have dodged the question about forming a Coalition with the Nationals as everyone knows he will never be able to govern in his own right. This is a key weakness that has not yet hit home in the community. The drought, water and Snowy flow debates didn’t really swing one way or the other and these issues will very much come down to micro-campaigns in individual seats.

QUESTIONS OF EACH OTHER

Steve Bracks waffled for too long when asked what he liked about Robert Doyle who showed him up with his curt response that the Premier “is a nice guy but This went down well with blokes but women thought it uncharitable.

The Doyle question on union power and the CFMEU also hit the right button whilst Bracks tried to push home the point about public service job cuts but Doyle was able to fudge it reasonably well.

ISSUES THAT WEREN’T COVERED

There was very little on the environment or Green preferences which could be vital. Issues like the Grand Prix and the location of the Commonwealth Games village in Parkville also failed to surface. Cronyism, ethics, transparency and honest were also surprise omissions given that Bracks swept to power partly on the back of this.

All in all it was terrific to break the 10-year television debate drought in Victoria and Bracks should move to atone for his mixed performance by agreeing to a second debate in the last week of the campaign.

The media should absolutely insist on this point. Just like Kennett got remorselessly bagged for the gag, Bracks should get a pasting for claiming to be open and accountable and then doing everything possible to minimise the impact of much-needed political debate in Victoria.

Wendy Wedge: I BEG TO DIFFER

But Crikey’s Politics Expert, Wendy Wedge, begs to differ:

Wendy, our wedge politics specialist, rates Robert Doyle’s performance the debate…and finds him wanting.

The most important thing the Liberal Party campaign people could do in the next few weeks is to keep Robert Doyle off the television news.

Now Wendy admires young Robert. On the conservative side of politics it’s hard to get good help and any petty bourgeois who knows his place and can be relied on to do the right thing to keep Wendys investments growing, trade unions down and investment bankers up is to be admired. Robert seemed to fit the bill.

But they must be able to convince the punters that they are genuine populists actually acting in the interests of the general population rather than that of Wendy and her friends. They need, in short, to be credible.

Sadly, Robert has failed his first major test – the debate with Steve Bracks on the ABC.

Sure, Robert probably won the debate on technical grounds, but on just about every other he was a total disaster.

First, he confused populism and humanity with a madman’s grimace which looked a bit too much like Humphrey Bogart in the Caine Mutiny. Sadly Robert appears to have an asymmetric face; great in some film roles but not too good when you leap into people’s living rooms during an election campaign.

Second, he let his advisers (that has to be Brian Buckley’s fault doesnt it?) persuade him that it would be a great idea to stand on a box to make him seem taller. There’s nothing wrong with that; Alan Ladd made a Hollywood career on the basis of it. But it tops all kinds of ineptitude to let the TV cameras catch the reality and expose it.

Third, he muffed the answer on the Otways forest ban. Well, he gave the correct policy and scientific answer but absolutely the worst possible political answer. Asked to give a one word reply to whether or not he would ban logging he launched into a dissertation only to fess up to the reality in response to Ian Henderson. At least it made the Greens preference decisions less likely to be interminably debated by the Gallery.

Fourth, he left a few hostages to fortune. He promised to look at legislation to ban government advertising; committed to not reducing the number of teachers, nurses, ambulance drivers and other parasites while simultaneously promising to slash public service numbers; claimed the speed limit legislation was all about legislation; and, agreed to fully fund all extra nurses in all country hospitals.

Now none of these policies are going to help Maynes, private schools or the private nursing industry, and will obviously need to be abandoned at some point in the unlikely event that Robert wins. Unfortunately he was so fervent in his protestations on these subjects that even the Press gallery might hound him about them at some stage.

Finally, he seemed to think he was George Dubya and launched into some embarrassing patriotism about loving Victoria. George can get away with it because it is the US of A and there is no sick-making emotionalism which is too tacky in that market.

What a disappointment.

Peter Fray

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