This business about Tony Abbott “running from a debate on the economy” seems to have gotten traction for Labor this week. I thought Julia Gillard caving in and agreeing to attend tonight’s useless RSL-style forum was undignified, but it seems to have focused more attention on Abbott’s curious unwillingness to discuss the economy, especially given he has left the key job of releasing his Budget surplus projection and commitment costings to Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb.

But let’s step back a second: just how important is it for Abbott, as an alternative Prime Minister, to be an economic guru? Kevin Rudd — a former diplomat — could claim no expertise when he ran against the long-serving partnership of John Howard and Peter Costello. But his lack of experience, and Wayne Swan’s, didn’t count in their handling of the GFC, which was excellent. For that matter, neither John Howard nor Bob Hawke had a record on economics when they became Prime Minister, except Howard’s dreadful stint as Treasurer under Fraser.

And Gillard — like Costello, an IR lawyer before politics — doesn’t come with a strong economics CV either.

Admittedly, Abbott is hobbled somewhat by his performance under Howard. As Health Minister he oversaw blowouts in health programs, became notorious among senior colleagues for the poor quality of the submissions he brought to Cabinet — a trait indulged by Howard, who always favoured Abbott in the hope he would see off  Costello and had much of his portfolio run from the PMO. His adherence to Howard’s own ideology of big taxing and spending for electoral purposes doesn’t help either, and the Coalition’s raft of new bodies, commissions and officials in its election promises doesn’t bode well on that front. And while Howard had Costello to try to rein in his love of spending, Abbott faces no such obstacle in the lightweight Hockey.

But it doesn’t follow that Abbott the Prime Minister would be the same as he was as a minister. Paul Keating, for example, turned from fiscal disciplinarian as Treasurer to running big deficits as Prime Minister, albeit with the burden of a slow recovery from recession. Abbott claims to have altered his approach to government in the intervening period, and there’s no evidence to doubt that.

In short, Abbott isn’t any less-qualified economically to be Prime Minister than any other recent occupant of the position.

What is in question, however, is Abbott’s temperament. This is a man who, by his own admissions, gets rattled under questioning and resorts to lying to get out of trouble. His reluctance to actually debate the economy seems to confirm his own fear that he may say something stupid under pressure in debate with the Prime Minister. And one of the key differences between being Opposition leader and Prime Minister is that everything you say as Prime Minister matters economically. Every statement is pored over and parsed by financial markets and foreign investors, and by commentators and analysts. You can’t stick an asterisk next to every statement as Prime Minister with a “to be confirmed” caveat.

And when Abbott says repeatedly — as he has done over the past 24 hours — that Australia is now less safe for investment than tinpot African dictatorships, it’s exactly the sort of statement that has economic ramifications, because markets know he is just a few thousand votes from being Prime Minister next week. There is little difference between such statements and Barnaby Joyce’s claims that Australia was in danger of defaulting on its borrowings. Both are nonsensical, and both damage Australia’s economic interests.

There are several grounds for questioning Tony Abbott’s fitness for office. The fact that he is not merely a global warming sceptic, but an actual advocate of global cooling, and of inaction on climate change, is one. His insistence that economic stimulus was unnecessary and wasteful is another, although that could be dismissed as mere partisanship and unreflective of what action he himself would have taken during the GFC.

That Abbott readily makes such economically damaging statements in his quest for power is a third.