It’s all in the eyes and ears of the beholders and listeners.
The popular media saw Kevin Rudd with notes when the debate’s rules of engagement banned them. The gay marriage lobby heard that there would be a bill brought forward in the first hundred days of a re-elected Rudd government. The economic wonks picked up on Tony Abbott apparently flatly ruling out changes to the GST for the indefinite future.
The issue of the “notes” is trivial but it is damaging for Rudd because it will become a talkback chatter point.
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His camp knows this. Last night his spokeswoman had a statement. “There was absolutely no intention to do anything other than comply with the rules. The Prime Minister arrived at the lectern in full view of the audience and the panel and there were no objections raised at any time.
“We have always believed this rule is aimed at preventing the use of props, and the Prime Minister is happy to debate Mr Abbott at any time during the campaign without notes”.
The Liberals were already exploiting the boo-boo. Shadow finance minister Andrew Robb said: “Mr Rudd said this election is about trust and the first thing he did was cheat.”
For Rudd, the notes affair is a glitch that he doesn’t want and can’t really afford, because it can be beaten up as cheating and goes to people’s gut instinct about a leader.
Obviously, he didn’t go in intending to break the rules. But it is also very careless that his team did not know exactly what was and was not allowed.
He did however, appear to go in with a strategy on gay marriage, assuming that the question would inevitably come up. His announcement that a bill would come forward in the first hundred days of a re-elected government was clever politics, though it sounds more dramatic than it is. Even if he had not given such a promise, it is fairly clear a move would be made quickly in a new parliament with a PM sympathetic to the cause.
Rudd’s undertaking indicates that he will push the issue in the campaign. It appeals strongly to a particular constituency but is also in sync with public thinking. Rudd’s a recent convert to the cause, and can make Abbott look out of time. Labor MPs would have a conscience vote, just as they have had in the previous parliament.
Tony Abbott can’t match this – he’s against gay marriage and his party room would make the decision after the election on whether there would be a conscience vote.
This is an issue where Rudd has a clear advantage over Abbott.
After the debate Rudd sent out an email declaring “I am the first Prime Minister of this country going into an election promising to support marriage equality. So if you support equal marriage, I will need your support.”
Abbott’s comments on the GST are important. The Coalition’s policy is that it would have a tax review and any proposed changes to the tax system would be taken to the people at the following election. There is no doubt that the GST would be discussed in that review, and given the amount of expert opinion around that it should be increased or broadened or both it is quite likely that a recommendation for change would come out of it.
But Abbott last night sought – without actually saying it – to leave a “never ever” impression. “The GST doesn’t get changed under the Coalition”; “No change to the GST”; “The GST is not going to change”; “It’s not going to change”.
Abbott has been toughening up his position on the GST in recent days but at some point he or Joe Hockey must explain how this fits with the proposed tax review.
Either Abbott is being tricky and the previous position stands or he has just rendered his own tax review useless.
Rudd’s response to a question on a second Sydney airport, linked into the issue of productivity, was quite odd.
“I’m from Queensland. I’m not from Sydney”, he said. “I hear contending arguments in terms of where or if such a new airport should be located. This lies with the Infrastructure minister. I’m sure recommendations will come forward at the right time and that appropriate decisions will be made on when the existing site at Kingsford Smith reaches its capacity”.
The issue of a second Sydney airport has bugged politicians, including prime ministers, for a generation. Rudd might not want to be drawn into it at this time, but he can’t easily opt out of it.
Even though opinion about the debate was divided with some observers seeing a draw and others giving it narrowly to either Rudd or Abbott, the PM won’t have a very happy morning.
Apart from the “notes” blunder, Newspoll has the Coalition maintaining the 52-48% lead it had a week ago. Worrying for Rudd, the Labor primary vote has fallen two points,to 35%, back to the level it was when Rudd defeated Julia Gillard. The Coalition primary vote has risen 2 points to 46%. And while Rudd is still preferred PM, Abbott has narrowed the gap from 14 points to 9 points.
Michelle Grattan is a Professorial Fellow at University of Canberra .
This piece was first published on The Conversation.