The campaign so far finds Kevin Rudd well and truly caught in a pincer movement. One arm was Howard’s acceptance of Rudd’s longstanding demands for a debate and, as with a no confidence motion, bringing it on immediately. Rudd, taken aback, stalled too long before capitulating. He had no alternative.

Richard Farmer’s suggestion he refuse assumed that Howard needed the debate because of the polls. He didn’t. A no-show would have left Rudd looking afraid to face Howard, who could have then declined any other debate. In this, the incumbent always calls the shots, as Hawke did in refusing to debate Howard.

We shouldn’t overrate the advantages of incumbency. A lot of government advertising is ineffective –who remembers being unchained by the GST? And advertisements can have unpredictable consequences. According to one survey taken early in the 1999 referendum campaign, TV viewers said they had seen both Yes and No advertisements. At that stage only the republicans could afford to put theirs on.

The other arm of Howard’s pincer movement also took Rudd by surprise – a bold taxation package, against which he has to have some sort of answer by Sunday. Rudd’s intelligence assessment of his opponent is poor or non-existent. His camp seems to have a Maginot Line strategy: fighting the last war with a supposedly impregnable fortress of slogans, rhetorical questions, “me-too” policies and a menu of standard answers. Howard’s pincer movement came from both sides of this Line.

Rudd has had a dream run from the media until now, which goes a long way to explaining the polls. He has become so used to unquestioning reporting that when a rare challenge has been made in the mainline media, his glass jaw was well and truly to the fore. It would have been better for him if more in the media had done to him what they have always done to Howard – apply the blowtorch. Yet only this week Kerry O’Brien was still being tough on Howard but gentle with Rudd. This doesn’t help Rudd, 7.30 Report viewers are interested but already committed.

Rudd will go into the debate with a distinct advantage. Most in the commentariat have been dreaming of Howard’s downfall since 1996. In the last election, they even pronounced Latham the winner of the debate. This was then fed into the news as if it were fact. With this sort of handicap, Howard was justified in rejecting Channel 9’s attempt to add another handicap, the worm.

Apart from being an unavoidable distraction from what is being said, a worm yielding claque would be as representative of undecided voters as say, the gallery is. The decision as to who wins the debate is something personal to each viewer; he or she doesn’t need assistance from either the gallery or a worm in coming to a conclusion.

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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