Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd and opposition leader Tony Abbott have held their first televised debate of the election campaign, with the incumbent narrowly shading his rival.
The hour-long debate, broadcast nationally yesterday by several television networks, focused on Australia’s worsening economic outlook as a mining boom fed by Chinese industrial demand cools.
Mr Rudd has conceded that his centre-left Labour Party is the underdog in the 7 September elections, and polls show that the conservative opposition coalition led by Mr Abbott’s Liberal Party is more popular. However, Labour takes comfort in Mr Rudd outpolling Mr Abbott as preferred prime minister.
An audience of 100 undecided voters polled by Nine Network television immediately after the debate said Mr Rudd had won, by 59 votes to 41.
“I think Rudd won the debate, but he needed to win it significantly in order to take back the momentum in the campaign,” former Rudd adviser Lachlan Harris told Nine. “He needs to win the campaign conclusively to win the election.”
Mr Abbott, a 55-year-old former Oxford University amateur boxer and Roman Catholic seminarian, claimed Mr Rudd had “killed” the mining boom by imposing a 30 per cent tax on iron ore and coal mining companies’ profits plus a tax on their carbon emissions last year.
He also argued that it was the mining boom that kept Australia out of recession during the global crisis, not the Rudd government’s economic management and stimulus spending.
Mr Rudd, a Mandarin-speaking former Beijing diplomat who was deposed as prime minister by his own party in 2007 and then restored to power in June, accused Mr Abbott of concealing spending cuts he would make as well as taxes he would increase to pay for his election promises if he wins.
Mr Abbott introduced his passion for physical fitness to the campaign yesterday by joining 85,000 runners on the nine-mile Sydney-to-Bondi Beach annual fun run. He acted as a support runner for a blind athlete.
Mr Rudd attended a Sunday church service in Canberra before announcing funding for a youth employment programme in neighbouring Queanbeyan.
Meanwhile, concern is mounting in the Labour party that the Rupert Murdoch- controlled press has become hugely partisan in the past few weeks, attempting to swing the vote in favour of Mr Abbott.
As the campaign kicked off last week, Murdoch’s best-selling Daily Telegraph tabloid urged readers to “Kick This Mob Out” over a picture of Mr Rudd at Parliament House.
In another front page from Murdoch’s News Corp stable, Mr Rudd and top lieutenants were shown as the hapless Nazi guards from the 1960s Hogan’s Heroes television show, while another greeted a high-profile recruit to Mr Rudd and Labour’s centre-left cause with the headline “Send in the Clown”. In the finely poised western Sydney seat of Parramatta, Julie Owens a member of parliament for Mr Rudd’s Labour party, says the influence of the Murdoch press is hurting, with the billionaire’s papers having adopted an even more confrontational stance than in past years.
“People aren’t as aware of what we have done, and they can’t judge us as a government,” says Ms Owens. “They can only judge us as a reality TV show – who is evil, who is bad, who is hard done by – and that’s what the news has become.”
Many people think Murdoch is using his 70 per cent grip on big-city newspaper sales to protect the dominance of his prized cable television investments from emerging digital media threats, chiefly a publicly funded A$34 billion super broadband network championed by Mr Rudd.
He has responded to the Murdoch push against him with a heavy reliance on social media, including announcing the start of the election campaign over Twitter, where he regularly messages and posts photos.