The best bit came when they quibbled about representativeness.

Now, if you’d been filming a United Colors of Benetton commercial in the Great Hall that evening – a venue entirely filled with hand-selected political apparatchiks and fossilized specimens excavated from the Canberra press gallery – you’d scarcely begin by announcing: “I think this place needs a few more old guys in suits.”

The argument about the relative virtues of lawyers and trade union officials seems, in other words, to rather miss the point.

There’s always been a gulf between parliamentary politics and the real world but last nights’ performance demonstrates just how wide it yawns (and one uses that word deliberately) in 2007.

Very early on, the leaders traded rhetorical blows over which party might more rightfully claim the mantle of economic conservatism. The whole skirmish depended upon the notion that there’s only a single legitimate economic model – and once you’ve established that, well, there’s not really much to argue about, is there?

Of course, while the worthies who assembled in the Great Hall last night might accept the tenets of economic conservatism as self-evidently natural and correct, it’s much less clear that the Australian public necessarily agrees, with the actual implementation of neo-liberalism always generating substantial popular unease.

But that unease found no expression in the carefully rehearsed political theatre on offer last evening.

Bob Brown quite correctly argued that the presence of the minor parties would have at least fostered some genuine debate. Yet the Greens were excluded as insufficiently mainstream – which, paradoxically, ensured that the actual policies on display cohered around a very narrow consensus, aimed first and foremost at political insiders rather than the general public.

You saw that with Howard’s casual reference to Donald Horne. The TV audience most probably neither knows nor cares who this Horne fellow might be (some kind of porn star, perhaps?) but that doesn’t matter. The reference makes perfect sense to the grey-faced journalists in attendance – and it’s such people who determine the winners and losers in their columns the next day.

What impact does this strange political kabuki have on how people actually vote?

Who knows? One imagines that Kevin Rudd’s pippin-cheeked schoolboy persona resonates more with Mr and Ms Citizen than John Howard’s impression of an angry grandfather – but, then, it’s just as likely that the Citizens gave the whole dreary business a miss.

Peter Fray

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