Kevin Rudd debate

Citing a static format and “creepy” hand gestures, Australia’s debating experts were unimpressed by last night’s leaders’ debate between Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.

Chris Hibbard, president of the Australian Debating Federation, says the format itself is “such a contrived structure that it is completely unlike that which could be described as a debate,” and that “every aspect of structure seemed to be designed to impede any actual debate”. On their debating style, Hibbard says the Prime Minister claimed victory, but only “very, very slightly”.

Hibbard, having just resided over the National Schools Debating Championship, believes that if they came up against school-age debaters they would find stiff competition.

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“Even the weakest debates there were so much more able to construct an argument and interact with each other than either Kevin Rudd or Tony Abbott were last night.”

Stephen Moore is president of the Monash University Association of Debaters, the reigning world champions. Moore and his teammates called Rudd the winner, but debating itself the overall loser.

“Unfortunately we’d have to say that debating was not the winner tonight, with the canned responses and short speaking times harming ideas from developing. As for the speakers, we’d credit the PM for having more substantive material in the debate and developing his ideas further. However, from a presentation perspective, he was outshone by Mr Abbott’s more engaging manner and more controlled limbs,” he said.

Wayne Jocic, former president of the Debaters Association of Victoria, also gives Rudd the win. “On presentation, Abbott won the debate. His manner was more natural and hence more appealing. This manifested itself in a slower pacing and more convincing tone, and in more natural gesture and eye contact. On the questions of substantive argument, though, Rudd was superior.”

According to Hibbard, Rudd’s debating style was strong.

“He was able to respond to questions reasonably well, but little things like [using notes] didn’t really help him, his own style was fine”.

On Abbott’s performance, Hibbard says the combination of speaking slowly and “strange finger-wagging” was “frankly, a bit creepy”.

Jocic was more positive on Abbott’s debating style: “His body language was open and expressive, and this was coupled with thoughtful pauses and a sense of authenticity. This, however, was insufficient to counter his inability to deal with vital questions, in particular regarding budgeting.”

The leaders had different strategies when it came to engaging with the audience, to Rudd’s advantage, says Hibbard.

“Kevin Rudd directed his entire speech to the camera, whereas Tony Abbott spent at least the early part of the debate trying to engage the audience in the room as well. I think this gave Kevin Rudd a very slight advantage in terms of engaging with the TV audience. Ultimately, the audience in the room was not really participating in the debate,” he said.

The use of hand gestures and posture was a differentiating factor in the debate. According to Jocic: “Abbott’s gesture was generally natural and open. Rudd, by contrast, seemed somehow mechanical, particularly in his opening speech, where unnatural fisting motions and repeated, menacing finger-pointing prevailed. The effect of this difference was that Abbott seemed engaged in conversation, whereas Rudd was lecturing, and doing so awkwardly.”

The leaders are fortunate they don’t have to face up to Moore and his world-class debating teammates at Monash though. “We couldn’t help but admire both speakers’ love of pushing timing of their speeches and trying to sneak in as much as possible after the chime,” Moore said.

“Combined with this, their unparalleled ability to use rhetorical flourishes to cover a lack of actual response means they’d both be very welcome members of our club. However, unfortunately, should they come up against us in a debate, our speakers’ tendency to actually respond to the topic presented means we may just edge over them.”