It was either a dead heat or a narrow win for either side – the pundits couldn’t agree.
One thing was certain: today’s televised debate between the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and the opposition leader, Tony Abbott, will have minimal impact on next month’s federal election, not least because most viewers probably fell asleep.
“I was bored out of my skull, to be perfectly honest,” Peter Van Onselen, a political commentator, told Sky News following the hour-long joust at the National Press Club in Canberra. Another, the former Labor politician Graham Richardson, criticised it as “stilted” and “half-arsed”.
“I understand there’s a bar there [at the club], and that’s the best thing about this debate,” Mr Richardson said. “You’d be hitting that pretty hard after listening to that debate.”
Mr Rudd was under pressure to score a clear victory to boost the Labor Party’s poll ratings. With just under four weeks until the election, Labor is a couple of points behind Mr Abbott’s conservative Liberal-National coalition. For the first time, too, according to one poll last week, Mr Abbott is seen as more trustworthy than his rival.
Today, neither made any embarrassing gaffes, nor did they land any knock-out blows. There was little passion in their exchanges, which focused mainly on the economy, and little new, bar a promise by Mr Rudd to introduce a same-sex marriage bill within 100 days of being re-elected.
A long-time opponent of gay marriage, the Labor leader – a devout Christian – publicly changed his position a few months ago. Mr Abbott, a former Catholic seminarian, remains opposed, despite having a gay sister.
The only controversy to arise out of the debate was a claim that Mr Rudd “cheated” by consulting notes while delivering his opening and closing addresses. According to National Press Club rules, “the leaders may have a pen and paper on the lectern and no other documentation or props”.
The Prime Minister appeared weakest when he deflected questions about a second airport for Sydney – an issue close to the hearts of voters in marginal seats in the city’s western suburbs.
Mr Abbott, for his part, was vague about how the Coalition would fund its promises, given that it plans to scrap Labor’s carbon tax as well as a tax on the “super-profits” of mining companies.
On climate change, Mr Rudd alluded to Mr Abbott’s past sceptical views. The coalition leader once described the science behind climate change as “total crap”, although he now says he accepts it.