Kevin Rudd has used the second leaders debate to breathe new life into his flagging election campaign, attacking Tony Abbott’s record as health minister and depicting the Liberals’ proposed paid parental leave scheme as unaffordable.
Openly admitting Mr Abbott was ‘‘way ahead in the polls’’, Mr Rudd paced before the Brisbane crowd and repeatedly accused Mr Abbott of hiding future cuts from voters.
The issue prompted one of the most spirited exchanges of the night as Mr Abbott appeared to lose his composure briefly, interjecting ‘‘Does this guy ever shut up?’’
Mr Rudd said such statements were the standard response of someone losing an argument.
In an early sign the Labor leader needed a punchier performance than he had put in at the initial debate nearly a fortnight ago, Mr Rudd first capitalised on the more flexible format of the forum in Brisbane’s Broncos Leagues Club to accuse Mr Abbott of having ‘‘ripped’’ $1 billion from hospital budgets and of planning further cuts.
It was a charge Mr Abbott flatly denied, after using his opening remarks to remind voters of Labor’s record in office.
“I’ll talk a lot about deficit, sure, the fiscal deficit, but in the end, the biggest deficit we’ve got right now is the trust deficit,” Mr Abbott said.
Carrying the greater burden to rescue his election hopes, Mr Rudd was aided by a series of politically convenient questions from among the 100-strong audience of swinging voters.
These ranged from policies to deal with homelessness, paid parental leave, the wisdom of assistance for the automotive industry, conservation and even gay marriage.
With the leaders parading like a pair of tele-evangelists, their microphones pressed to their chins, the exchanges became heated on several occasions, reaching a climax as an argument over costings dragged on.
‘‘You’re saying that an allocation of $75,000 for six months for a person on $150,000 a year can be compared somehow to an age pensioner on $19,000 a year, not six months,” Mr Rudd charged.
In response to a question from a man who worried that Mr Abbott might revive WorkChoices if elected, Mr Abbott repeated his industrial relations mantra from the election campaign of 2010. “I was one of two cabinet ministers who opposed it, ‘‘he said of the Howard government’s WorkChoices.
‘‘That particular policy is, to use the famous phrase, dead, buried and cremated. It is never going to happen, we are not going to go back to the past. We learnt our lesson.”
With nine seats in Queensland held by the Coalition on margins of les than 5 per cent, both sides agree the Sunshine State holds the key to the election outcome. This is why both leaders will officially launch their campaigns from Brisbane in the coming week.