Ouch. You know Kevin Rudd must have flogged John Howard last night when even The Australian scored it a narrow victory to the Labor leader.

No surprises there. Howard may have always looked like the nebbish school debating captain, but he has previously been bested by Kim Beazley and Mark Latham – neither of them exactly grand orators – and even struggled with a comatose Paul Keating in 1996. It shows how important debates are that he has won each of those elections, usually handily.

His main problem – and it is one for the broader Liberal campaign – is an inability to stick to some simple messages. Rudd can reel off his priorities in his sleep, and frequently sounds like he is doing just that. Education. Housing. Childcare. Kyoto. Health. Bang. Everything is tied back to working families, just like it has been since the start of the campaign. It’s simple and it works.

In contrast, Howard was all over the place. Criticising Rudd’s record as a backbencher. Bagging unions. Saying what a great team he had.

Knocking Donald Horne. Making half-baked announcement about Iraq. Discussing obscure members of the Hawke Ministry. Rudd correctly finished by saying he wasn’t clear on what Howard wanted to do if he was re-elected. For all the me-too criticism, no one’s unsure about Rudd’s agenda.

As everyone knows, Nine wormed the debate, and lost its feed for its troubles, presumably at the hands of a Liberal hack mortified at the persistent redlining of the Prime Minister. The ABC declined to use the worm, on the basis that – don’t laugh – it is a “serious public broadcaster”.

The worm is a lazy mechanism that trivialises the robust exchange of ideas and substitutes the judgement of “swinging voters”, selected without transparency by a private company, for informed analysis. But worming the debate was the best decision Nine has made for ages.

Despite the many excesses of the Howard years, the Liberals do not yet control the media industry. If it takes Ray Martin and a studio full of slack-jawed yokels to point that out, all well and good.

Even so, you wonder if Labor infiltrated Nine’s audience. Rudd never entered the red zone, even when he struggled on carbon targets, whereas Howard was permanently camped there, particularly when he made the mistake of praising Costello. The latter was squirming in his chair in the audience wanting to join in, knowing he would’ve done a much better job than his leader. Too bad, Pete – that’s the price of cowardice.

The evening was perfectly summed up by the closing addresses. Rudd gave a polished reiteration of his key themes. Howard, apparently annoyed by his opponent’s emphasis on education, launched into his own waffling plea for an “education revolution”, which appeared to amount to the 3 Rs and a Dead White Cricketer approach to Australian history.

You could almost hear the squeak of the chalk and the swish of the cane.

If nothing else, Howard will go down fighting his beloved culture wars.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.