Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Photo: Harrison Saragossi
Tony Abbott cannot afford to dismiss another Kevin Rudd challenge to debate him on the economy, as he did last week when the Prime Minister fronted the National Press Club alone.
The Opposition Leader has made an art form of refusing to play the game on the government's terms. He found it easy to say no to former prime minister Julia Gillard; it resonated with much of Australia when he ignored her demands to debate policy; he got a kick out of seeing her government squirm at his apparent contempt for any form of co-operation.
But the game has changed and, like it or not, voters now want to see more of what Abbott has to offer. It's not good practice for an opposition leader to jump every time a prime minister throws down the gauntlet, but Abbott can't allow Rudd to have the floor all to himself on too many occasions.
Yes, it was a bit of a stunt for Rudd to snap his fingers and demand Abbott debate the economy with him on Thursday. But the stunt worked.
Instead of Rudd and Abbott going face-to-face at the Press Club, Australians saw the PM alone, acting prime ministerial and talking about the economy. He even used nerdy graphs, but they were ones that made a good case.
People saw Rudd drive home the message that Abbott didn't want to face him and he didn't want to talk about the economy. Abbott's absence allowed Rudd to stake his own claim to sound economic credentials, while also fostering doubt about his no-show opponent.
It allowed Rudd to wind up his speech with this: ''In summary, Mr Abbott just doesn't understand economics. Don't take my word for it. That is what former treasurer Peter Costello said about Mr Abbott. Today, I wanted to debate the future of our economy. Mr Abbott's absence has made such a debate impossible … remember this was the day for Mr Abbott to defend his case. Instead, Mr Abbott decided to cut and run. Run away from the facts. But keep pumping out the fear.
''In Mr Abbott's absence, what I have done today is outline our framework for tackling Australia's future economic challenges.''
Rudd also described the Opposition Leader as a formidable politician, but one who ''is particularly formidable in the art of negative politics''.
Not that Rudd isn't guilty himself of that dark art.
A joke going around ministerial offices right now is that each morning the PM's office fires off a list of talking points for the day that first point out how negative Abbott is about everything - and then it lists a long line of negative things to say about the Opposition Leader.
By necessity, our political system is adversarial and so accusing an opponent of simply being too negative doesn't carry much weight with the electorate. That's one of the reasons why it didn't gain too much traction when Gillard kept using it against Abbott.
But the message might start getting through now because people are listening to Rudd where they weren't listening to Gillard. Abbott and his shadow treasurer, Joe Hockey, came out separately after Rudd's Press Club appearance to criticise and carp.
But on the question of why the Opposition Leader didn't take up the nationally televised challenge, all they could say was that the debate could be had in a recalled Parliament or in the context of an election campaign.
It did not help Abbott's case one bit that on the day of the debate the Institute of Chartered Accountants Australia released a paper laying down what it believes should be an economic policy platform for the next term of government.
The institute stressed that getting some long-term answers from both sides of politics before the election is a priority for Australian voters.
Providing those answers should be a priority for each party's leader.