Deputy Prime Minister Mark Vaile would not have been surprised by the verdict of the worm.

In a speech to the Federal Council of his National Party 10 weeks ago he warned his colleagues that people don’t want to hear that Labor had a $10 billion budget deficit in 1995-96 or that it ran up $96 billion in government debt. “They know we’ve fixed Paul Keating’s legacy”, he said. “They’ve thanked us already, by re-electing the Coalition in 1998, 2001 and 2004. And they don’t want to hear esoteric arguments about macroeconomic statistics or budget measures.”

But a history lesson was what Prime Minister John Howard could not resist in last night’s debate. While Labor Leader Kevin Rudd was full of talk about the future and vision, Mr Howard kept looking back. The challenger stuck to what his opponents attempt to denigrate as “bumper stickers” – simple examples that people can understand – while the champion of 11 years spoke of sound economic management in terms that commentators later suggested might have put the audience to sleep.

The supposedly uncommitted voters making up the audience in the Nine Network studio reacted in positively partisan fashion as they sent the worm upwards to crawl along the top of the graph as Mr Rudd was speaking while it rarely breached the mid point when it was Mr Howard’s turn.

Mark Vaile is clearly not a man the PM takes advice from. He would be better served doing so than associating too much with his Treasurer Peter Costello for the next five weeks. The downward slide of the worm as the panel used their machines to pass judgment said all that it is needed to know. Mr Costello is not a vote winner and the Howard commitment to hand over to his deputy some time before the next election, should he win this one, could well turn out to be the biggest tactical mistake of the campaign.

The Liberal campaign team will surely be disappointed with the performance of their man but in the total scheme of campaign things the debate probably will not amount for much. Mark Latham and Kim Beazley were widely judged to have won the last two debates before being convincingly defeated at the ballot box.

The lesson Mr Howard surely must learn from last night is that he needs to find enough of the vision thing to stop himself looking like a tired old man with nothing new to offer.

The best reaction he got from the worm was when he sounded a little passionate about global warming and the efforts he has made, and will continue to make, to get the United States and China to take the problem seriously. He needs more of that in the weeks ahead.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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