Julia Gillard’s cop-out on climate policy follows Tony Abbott’s capitulation on industrial relations and confirms our worst fears: we are faced with a choice between two candidates who believe that political leadership is best manifested in total inaction, the surrender of core beliefs to the opinion polls and the dumbing down of policy to the lowest common denominator.

Gillard’s idea of a people’s assembly to achieve consensus under the guidance of a commission of experts is the silliest and most pusillanimous proposal to date, but don’t believe we’ve hit bottom; we still have more than three weeks to go.

Still, the plan to set up the world’s biggest focus group will take some beating — if it ever comes to fruition. There are a few problems. Will the assembly include the self-interested and sceptical? It will be unrepresentative if it does and unworkable if it doesn’t. And in any case we already have a people’s assembly called parliament, as has been pointed out by numerous critics, Abbott among them. At least he produced his own non-policy on climate change all by himself.

But Abbott has nothing to be cocky about: his own decision to vacate the entire field of industrial reform for at least three years, or in his less scripted moments forever, was hardly Churchillian. It was reminiscent of Kevin Rudd’s backdown on an Emissions Trading Scheme, the start of all Rudd’s woes. But in some ways Abbott’s recantation was even more devastating.

Industrial reform has always been a core — even the core — Liberal belief. From Alfred Deakin through to Robert Menzies, Malcolm Fraser and John Howard, it has been the defining policy. Abbott himself, as Howard’s Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, was an enthusiastic part of the process, and while he has expressed doubts about the political wisdom of introducing WorkChoices, has never resiled from much of the substance: “it was good for wages, it was good for jobs and it was good for workers, never forget that,” he proclaimed not long ago.

Now, of course, WorkChoices is dead, buried and cremated, and there is his scrawl on an old piece of cardboard to prove it. But not only that: Labor’s Fair Work Act is to remain untouchable, because he has been scared off. Never mind that this involves abandoning a whole series of promises to amend unfair dismissal laws and bring back individual work contracts; and it doesn’t seem to matter that it betrays the key Liberal constituency of small business, not to mention a lot of others who support the party financially as well as electorally.

Abbott is apparently happy to be seen as a fraud and a poltroon, a shyster who cannot be trusted or believed and who stands for nothing. This, of course, is precisely the political cowardice of which he accuses Gillard, and on her record to date he has a point. But pots and kettles, people in glass houses, etc.

Of course the voters are the real losers. Never has the prime ministership of Australia been contested by such a pair of abject, craven, weak-kneed, whey-faced, chicken-hearted, lily-livered, jelly-bellied milksops. And what a lead up to the so-called Great Debate: the Wimp versus the Wuss.

The debate was rescheduled so as not to clash with a popular cooking program, but it is likely that the only ones who paid it any real attention were the audiences paid to do so by the television networks, and political tragics who had already taken sides. The latter barracked for their own corner and awarded points accordingly, while the former gave the prize to Gillard.

Or at least the women did; the men were more evenly split, and if they had any preference at all, it appeared to be for Abbott. The width of the gender gap was about the only thing the exercise contributed to the sum of human knowledge; the rest of it was so bland as to suggest that the hour should have been sponsored by Mogadon.

Both leaders followed their well-prepared scripts, avoided any gaffes, were unfailingly polite and generally totally unconvincing. It was like a strictly formalised school debate in which the sides are given a topic and told to prepare a case for one side or the other. They then receive points for matter, manner and method — but not for aggression, passion or conviction, since they are not expected to genuinely believe in anything they are saying.

There were a few glimmers of life; Gillard was actually quite enthusiastic on education and Abbott got in the odd crack about Kevin Rudd. But neither had anything new to say, and neither managed to bring new life to the slogans, clichés and platitudes they have been repeating since the start of the campaign and before it.

In the circumstances it is silly to talk about who won and who lost because there was no real contest. Obviously the whole thing will have been well and truly forgotten by polling day; indeed, it will probably have faded from memory by the time you read this. And the debate was supposed to be the high point of the campaign, the crucial battle that could mean the difference between victory and defeat.

In the event, or rather the non-event, Gillard probably did slightly better, if only because she was generally positive while Abbott was relentlessly negative; he has obviously given up hope of winning the election and is relying on the government to lose it. But in a sense he can claim have finished the night ahead, simply because he wasn’t far behind: prime ministers are expected to beat opposition leaders clearly, so a near draw in fact counts as a loss.

And Abbott wants more debates. Well, OK Tony, but only if you promise to appear in your budgie smugglers. That’s the only way you’ll get us to watch.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey