Mark Latham won the debate and this is what Crikey subscribers received the day after the Channel Nine showdown.

It ain’t over till it’s over!

By political editor Christian Kerr

The front pages are overflowing today with reports of the wisdom of the worm – but no doubt Mark Latham and his advisers are well aware that there are still 26 sleeps until polling day.

Once even Grahame Morris had declared that Latham was the winner on Sky News at 8.35pm last night it was only a matter for the rest of the punditocracy to decide by how much.

Last night was good for the Labor leader. John Howard looked wooden the way in which he insisted on speaking at the camera for his opening and closing statements – and that ill-fitting suit didn’t do much. Latham wasn’t at his spontaneous best, but at least he wasn’t filled with grabs and gags and ockerisms he felt obliged to quote all at once. Indeed, dare one say it, he looked fairly relaxed and comfortable.

His opening was sheer brilliance. He had the words of a leader, not a larrikin:

“Can I just start by paying my respects to the people who have suffered so much as a result of the tragic bombing in Jakarta. It’s a reminder of the uncertain world in which we live, but I think that we also need to be positive, we need to be talking about solutions and I hope here tonight that Mr Howard and I can show people the very best of our Australian democracy. After all, that’s why I’m running to be Prime Minister, to make Australia a stronger, fairer and safer place.”

For all of us, in other words. John Howard was wrong footed from that moment onwards.

Mark Latham’s subtle invocation of Curtin over national security was fascinating, too. No Keating style history lessons over the fall of Singapore. Instead, he gently drew the focus of the war of terror to something immediate and very close to home we hear little about – the actual tactics being used against JI:

“One of the great problems with JI is their movement in and out of terrorist bases in the southern Philippines and Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia have been trying to muster air surveillance and maritime security to try and stop this flow of the terrorists in and out of the Philippines. Australia has only been marginal to that effort. We’ve got a few surveillance operations, but no great maritime presence. This is where Labor will dedicate our resources.”

Clever, clever, clever. Throw in a direct but not too casual style, some hard but not too low blows about the Prime Minister’s age and the question about whether or not he’ll serve much past the date on which he beats Hawke as the second longest serving Prime Minister and the boy did well.

The trouble is that he needs to keep on performing to this standard for four more weeks, in the face of all the Government’s attacks, policy launches and negative ads, in the face of all the flare-ups and variables campaigns contain and – heaven forbid – maybe even in the face of further terror attacks.

Latham must know how Andrew Peacock won the first leaders’ debate back in 1984 for by a mile – and what happened to him on the polling day?

But if it’s given him an advantage, why not take it? Up to when the Jakarta bomb went off, Latham was urging the Prime Minister to meet him in some town hall debates. Why not? Last night was impossibly staged and scripted. The journos couldn’t land a blow because their desk was so small there wasn’t room to swing a punch.

The Labor boys can name a date, get a venue, get the podium and dump Latham down there. The media will turn up. If Howard doesn’t, that’s his problem. He will have wimped – wimped out in front of ordinary voters and wimped out in front of the Opposition leader.

Wishful thinking? Not necessarily. Latham is best when he thinks outside the circle. Bring it on. It will be good for the punters, the pundits – and help Latham keep the momentum that he gained last night.

The truly tragic can find the debate transcript on the 60 Minutes site.

Labor insider on the great debate

By Our Senior Labor Insider

So just how badly did Howard do in the debate last night? So bad Nick Minchin called it a draw on AM.

In the two decades we have had these debates in Australia under their various formats, I, for one, cannot recall either side ever claiming anything other than that their bloke won by a country mile. But Howard’s performance was so bad last night that even a senior minister from the government which has become a synonym for lying knew that claiming the PM won the debate was just too big a porkie to get away with.

Howard, it appeared, went out of his way to prove he was not good at the debate by adopting a boring, stupefying tone throughout, being negative, and having no answers to questions a first year media studies student would have seen coming a year off.

Latham started slow, and could have done without the brief tribute to the Jakarta victims which jarred badly, but once things heated up he showed passion, vision and a very good grasp of issues like foreign policy and tax policy details which were supposed to trip him up.

But he got an awful lot of help from Howard. For example, Labor had already killed Howard’s “cut and run” line on Iraq by turning it back on Howard’s only refusal to rule out his own cut and run. But did this stop Howard using it? Latham couldn’t believe his luck and gladly accepted the offer of the underarm lob from half way down the pitch to remind voters of Howard’s cut and run strategy. Don’t expect to be hearing that line from Howard ever again – as far as the public is concerned cut and run now means “Howard won’t serve”.

And what was Howard ‘s devastating comeback to these attacks? He was part of a team – a team of Costello, Downer and Anderson for God’s sake! The same Costello he refuses to step aside for because most of his colleagues think he is electoral poison, the same Downer who is an international embarrassment and thinks 3rd hand conversations about phone calls amount to evidence in the Jakarta bombing, and the same Anderson who that very day dropped his leader in it by admitting Iraq had made us a bigger target for terrorists. What a team! Labor has spent millions on advertising pushing this line, and Howard gives it to them for free on prime time TV – well done Johnny!

But Howard’s worst moment was his attempt to prove he wasn’t too old to be PM because he still loved the job. You could almost hear millions as they collectively repeated that nice line from The Castle “Get your hand off it John”.

But the biggest shock was the reaction of the worm to the terrorism debate. Every time Howard spoke on the subject, it dived, yet when Latham spoke it rose. Howard stuck to his fear campaign, Latham instead offered an alternative.

Could it be this ship has finally left port for John Howard? Are voters finally twigging that 3 years after September 11 Howard has made us less safe and they think a change is needed? I for one am very sceptical. I reckon the audience was reacting against the issue of Iraq and terrorism rather than Howard’s handling of it, and endorsed the more positive visionary tone of Latham’s answer. But for Labor-types who spent the weekend in therapy assuming Jakarta = another Howard win on terrorism, it was a promising sign terrorism is not necessarily doom and gloom for Labor and the punters might finally have worked out that Howard is the liability here, not Labor.

There’s a swag of commentary today all noting the worm scored it to Kim by a similar margin in 2001, and yet Howard won the election. But they fail to point out that when that debate was held Labor trailed Howard by 16 points on primary votes. This time Latham went into the debate just 5 points behind on primaries and all square on 2 party preferred. Kim’s debate win last time simply narrowed the size of the loss. Latham’s win this time could be far more important.

Hugo Kelly on Annabel Crabb’s debate victory

Crikey’s man in the gallery Hugo Kelly dreams of an even greater ‘Great Debate’:

And the winner is…Annabel Crabb.

Fresh from London and pretty in pink, The Age’s political diarist lit up the 60 Minutes screen with a jaunty analysis of The Worm for the benefit of home viewers.

It was blessed relief after a dull “debate” between the shop-worn but stoically on-message PM and a marginally more animated Iron Mark. Annabel’s strawberry pinstripe blouse and the swinging voter with the spiky green hair sitting behind her were the only flashes of colour on Nine last night.

The deadly earnest talk of national security dominating the first half of the Howard-Latham debate contrasted starkly with the rare color as Annabel noted how the worm turned for Howard on national security and leadership, declaring: “The worm’s a pacifist.”

Apart from the banishment of the worm to a mere afterthought, last night’s problem was the format, dictated by the Liberal party to reduce Latham’s on-screen advantage.

The participants didn’t address each other or, for most of the event, the camera. With a near-zero engagement factor, Latham and Howard may as well have been in separate studios.

Given that last night’s event wasn’t a debate – more like a polite, extended press conference – we should push for a new, fresh format next time the political gladiators meet. A tired institution needs a radical re-launch.

The set itself needs a little tweaking. Our panel of journos looked like a firing squad in front of the inanimate candiates. Trouble is, they were armed with pop-gun questions. Next time, our hacks should carry paintball air-rifles, and candidates should cop a colourful blast every time they stray from the question into an earnest monologue. That would brighten up the uniformly funeral dark suits on view last night.

To encourage more direct on-screen combat, both leaders should be armed with boxing gloves, with Marquis of Queensbury rules applying and The Bulletin’s Tony Wright refereeing, using his deadly bull-whip to separate the fighters when necessary.

Instead of lecterns, the leaders should be made to stand on a greasy sheet of plastic being hosed down by swinging voters holding Worm Meters.

A live studio audience drawn from various sectional interests would be encouraged to get invoved – farmers might like to throw rotten fruit when the pollies lose focus on the diesel rebate. Vietnam veterans could be let loose to encourage debate on repat benefits.

That should stop discussion getting bogged down over minutiae.

Sound a little over the top? Got any better ideas for a new debate format? Send your suggestions to our man in the Gallery, hugo @crikey.com.au