Leo D'Angelo Fisher Columnist

Leo covers management and leadership issues, business trends and corporate strategy. He is a former senior business writer at The Bulletin and a former host of The Business Hour on 3AW.

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Leaders’ Brisbane debate showed their true colours

Published 22 August 2013 11:54, Updated 23 August 2013 08:58

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Leaders’ Brisbane debate showed their true colours

During the second leaders’ debate, Tony Abbott called Kevin Rudd on his verbosity, but he may have gone a step too far. Photo: Andrew Meares

It was the line that everyone will remember from the leaders’ community forum in Brisbane when a needled Tony Abbott snapped at Kevin Rudd: “Does this guy ever shut up?” It was the most entertaining moment from the leaders’ confrontation at the Broncos Leagues Club, and it may well be the most revealing.

If these debates must be held – and it appears they must, for reasons never clear – then at least the Brisbane forum put a bit of spark into this dreary election. At times the stoush between Rudd and Abbott before an audience of 100 undecided voters was arresting, which certainly can’t be said of their first encounter in a television studio.

The leaders took each other to task in what was a much livelier, spontaneous contest.

And that spontaneity included that line. Abbott’s put down of Rudd, who had been terrier-like (or Rudd-like) in pursuing the opposition leader over the funding of the $5.5 billion-a-year paid parental leave scheme, was definitely off-script.

Refusing to accept Abbott’s explanation that the levy on big business and cost savings would pay for the scheme, Rudd insisted: “That just doesn’t add up; you don’t get to $5.5 billion that way, you just don’t.”

Abbott: “Well, I’m sorry, the Parliamentary Budget Office disagrees with you.”

Rudd: “Just one more thing. . .”

And then Abbott delivers the evening’s pay dirt: “Does this guy ever shut up?”

It’s open to interpretation just what Abbott had in mind when he let rip. It could have been an attempt at comedy based on what is no doubt a widely held view that Rudd loves the sound of his own voice. But if that was his intention, the delivery, and the moment, let him down.

It sounded like Abbott was rattled; goaded by Rudd’s persistence, aware that his ham-fisted paid parental leave scheme is the one issue with the potential to salvage Labor’s dissipating electoral prospects.

The issue of respect

But was he being disrespectful of the Prime Minister personally and the office of the Prime Minister, as critics have suggested? The Coalition made much of respect for the office when it shed political tears over Julia Gillard’s knifing of Rudd in 2010. Now, Abbott is telling Rudd to shut up live to air on national television.

There’s no cause to be offended by Abbott’s remark. It’s not as if he mooned Rudd. Anyone who wants to contrive a national incident out of the moment is stretching credulity. It will be a sad moment in Australia’s traditionally robust democracy if “shut-up-gate” gains traction. Have we really become such sensitive petals?

There’s no cause to be offended by Abbott’s remark. It’s not as if he mooned Rudd.

It would be hard to find a more steadfast supporter of Australia’s political institutions than Abbott; he’s entitled to the benefit of the doubt.

But that is not to say there wasn’t significance in Abbott’s momentary loss of equilibrium.

Rudd knew what he was doing when he needled Abbott on the paid parental leave costings; he knows it’s the weakest link in the Coalition’s election program. Voters should also welcome the fact that Rudd did not let Abbott off the hook.

Looking the other way

The paid parental leave scheme is bad policy. Australia cannot afford the scheme, big business has been unfairly burdened with paying for at least half of it, and it smacks of middle-class welfare that promises a big cash handout to the people who need it least.

Unfortunately – disgracefully – business groups have decided to look the other way on this issue. They clearly don’t have the stomach for taking on the Coalition over the flawed policy. They presumably do not want to create any discord that would keep the conservatives out of office; nor do they want to pick a fight with the Coalition in the event that it wins government in any case.

Business groups should spend less time positioning themselves for an Abbott government and more time holding both major parties to account on the policies they would bring to government.

The second leaders’ debate showed that Rudd can’t be written off. It is widely believed that voters have stopped listening, but it may well be that they will listen if our political leaders give them reason to listen and engage.

To that extent, the Brisbane community forum did its job when Rudd put pressure on Abbott to explain his policy and how he is going to fund it. The “shut up” comment may have been an ill-judged retort, or it may have demonstrated that Abbott was indeed feeling the pressure.

He can expect to feel a lot more over the issue.

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