Steggall v Abbott debate
Zali Steggall and Tony Abbott. (Image: AAP/Damian Shaw)

The candidates’ debate last night between the two front-runners for Warringah — independent Zali Steggall and Liberal Party incumbent Tony Abbott — served to confirm what we essentially already knew: they’re both energetic candidates and persuasive talkers; they’re both taking this seriously; and they both think Steggall can win. The revelation was as much because of what didn’t happen, as what did.

When he is being questioned or challenged (particularly, it has to be said, by women) Abbott sometimes has a certain tendency. We saw it when a 67-year-old called up while he was on ABC radio and he gave host Jon Faine a wink when she mentioned she was a sex worker. We saw it back in March when he and Steggall last debated. It’s the constant interjections, and a jocular, mocking invitation to see his opponent as he sees them.

There was none of that tonight. The interjections were kept to a minimum. And, in keeping with his microscopic target approach to the campaign, it was an effective, tightly managed performance. He was contained, across his lines, and when there was a jab, it was sharp. After a question about GetUp, he responded, not entirely relevantly, “Look, GetUp say they have 600 volunteers in Warringah and I reckon all of them are wearing a ‘Vote Zali’ T-Shirt”. There’s no evidence to back up that claim, and it gets audible groans and jeers, but isn’t that the idea of a low blow? Doesn’t matter if you lose points, as long as you hurt and tire out your opponent.

It’s not error free. During a debate about electric vehicles, Steggall — again, typical of her market-centered argument for climate change action — said electric vehicles would eventually become so ubiquitous and inevitable that Australia would have no choice but to embrace them. Abbott shot back “or maybe we’ll rebuild the car manufacturing industry in this country” to a rash of laughter.

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Speers asked whether Abbott was seriously suggesting that could even happen. “No, I’m not, David I’m just saying … if the world won’t provide us with something, I’m sure we can provide it for ourselves.” 

It’s a classic bit of Abbott weirdness, a faintly grand suggestion, tethered to a lovely conservative idea (in this case, Australian resourcefulness and self-reliance) rather than reality, at odds with what he did when prime minister, and quickly half-abandoned. There’s a similar moment earlier when he declares the northern tunnel should have been built 20 years ago, prompting the thought that 20 years ago, he had already been in parliament for five years. 

Steggall, as ever, is impressive. She also knows her lines — “we’re an educated an progressive electorate who needs someone who really represents their views”. It seems to land well when she appeals to the audience “as a barrister, as an athlete, as a mother of teenagers”. Part of the reasons Abbott doesn’t interject is that she pushes back firmly when he does. And she manages to not get too tied up in a Speers grilling over who she would back in a hung parliament.

Her main stumbling point is when a questioner asks what she’s done personally about her carbon footprint, and she admits she currently can’t afford a seven-seater electric vehicle for her and her kids and is “looking into” solar panels for her house. She covers pretty well, saying this is why governments need to do more in this area, but it gives Abbott a free hit on the dangers and costs of “well intentioned climate policy”. She’s lucky Abbott’s car industry comment follows almost immediately, which probably deadens the impact.

As the debate wound to its closing statements, the candidates hit their key areas one last time. Steggall, as an athlete, is focused on results, as a barrister, represents the needs and beliefs of other not herself.

In a nice touch of theatre, Abbott takes to his feet — Steggall had stayed seated — and walks down off the stage towards the crowd, before delivering his final pitch. It’s classic Abbott (in the good way). Big ideas about preserving the social contract, about building a bright future off the successes of the past, before ending with a stark warning that a vote for anyone but him puts all that at risk.

What’s tough to tell is who actually won, given the breakdown of supporters. Steggall definitely generates a lot more noise — after it winds up, there is a “Zali! Zali! Zali!” chant, and Abbott gets booed a few times when he gets too, well, Abbott about things. Indeed, I’m surprised when Abbott’s conclusion doesn’t get a bigger cheer — it’s stirring and scary, so if you like him, you’d like this. But then, if I’ve learnt anything from my time here, Abbott fans aren’t the whooping and cheering types. 

What’s even tougher to tell is whether they actually changed anyone’s mind. From what I could see, no one who cheered for Steggall was moved to applaud anything of Abbott’s, and vice versa. In this polarised electorate, it seemed to be a crowd that had a pretty good idea of what they thought before they arrived. 

Unfortunately, despite his best efforts, Charlie Lewis wasn’t able to attend the debate in person. The only thing more “tightly controlled” than Abbott’s performance was Sky’s willingness to divulge the location of the debate, ostensibly for security reasons.