It’s rare that smartarse parliamentary tactics get such an immediate comeuppance, but when the Prime Minister and Anthony Albanese decided to give Tony Abbott ten minutes on health yesterday they evidently forgot that Abbott, like any politician worth their salt, can talk under wet cement. Perhaps they thought the lack of a Coalition policy, or being caught unprepared would faze Abbott, but from the Opposition Leader’s point of view, what was not to love about ten minutes of crucial Parliamentary time to flail Kevin Rudd? And that’s what he proceeded to do.
And sure, he repeated everything about six times, as you do when you have to fill in time, and he made a stupid remark suggesting a cancer centre in Darwin and a PET scanner in Sydney should be named after him, but he belted the Government, defended his own record and buoyed the spirits of his backbench. Offering Abbott five more minutes to keep doing it looked like Albanese trying hard to show that the Government’s effort to wrongfoot Abbott hadn’t failed.
Graciously, however, the Coalition returned the favour once Question Time had resumed, when it immediately raised the issue of election debates. Having devoted the week to insulation, asylum seekers and school buildings, quite why the Opposition chose that point to raise the wonkish issue of debates — about which no one outside the media and politics could care less about — remains a mystery. Rudd seized the opportunity and immediately suggested that they have a debate next week, on health.
Which, you can bet, wasn’t quite what the Opposition had in mind either in terms of timing or subject matter, as it keeps the focus right where the Government wants it.
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Abbott’s two efforts to distract from health, first with his parental leave proposal and then with his comments about traditional owner acknowledgments, haven’t worked, and while the latter might have made for a nice dog whistle to some Howard voters who went Labor at the last election, the PPL proposal has only served to undermine further the Coalition’s economic credentials and erode the Opposition’s capacity to generate a scare campaign around the Henry review.
In retrospect Abbott might have been better off launching a full-scale assault on the health reform package the moment Rudd unveiled it, on the Karl Rove principle that you find an enemy’s strong point and attack it. Still, you live and learn.
If Abbott could spend Tuesday’s debate repeating yesterday’s dose and bagging the Government and explaining that he didn’t cut health funding, it’d be fine, but there’s now an expectation he must do more than criticise Rudd, that he must offer something positive. It obviously wasn’t in the Coalition’s planning to be producing a full-blown health policy at this stage. Rudd himself will presumably use the debate to make yet another of the many announcements about health funding that he promised back when he kicked off the health debate. If so, Abbott’s failure to produce something of substance will look particularly poor.
All of which is why, despite the alleged risks of debating your opponent, Rudd is happy to be doing just that.