The consensus going into today’s health debate was that Kevin Rudd had gambled by proposing a debate with Tony Abbott on health – Abbott was a more effective communicator than Rudd, Abbott didn’t have a policy to defend and could simply point out the flaws in Rudd’s policy, the mere act of agreeing to a debate showed Rudd was rattled.

What that analysis overlooked was just how much voters want someone to do something about hospitals, and the power of Rudd’s anti-State Government reform plan, which has drawn strong community support.  The Government has been trying to get the political agenda onto health for weeks now, and when Tony Abbott foolishly rose in Parliament last Thursday and asked about election debates, Kevin Rudd seized the chance to freeze the spotlight on health for an extended period.  And at the moment there’s only one side with a positive proposal for reform in the area.

But there remained the risk that a poor Rudd performance would overshadow the focus on health, and give further momentum to Tony Abbott, who has narrowed the Government’s poll lead back, by at least one measure, to the point where the Coalition are competitive again.

In the end, Labor had it both ways.  Health and health funding has remained the dominant political issue, and Rudd easily outpointed Abbott in the debate by staying positive, appealing to bipartisanship and emphasising attractive themes like the impact on families.

In contrast, Abbott performed poorly for exactly the reason he was supposed to be strong: his only real option was to be negative. Surprisingly, Abbott failed to really nail the weak points or unclear aspects of Rudd’s reform plan – of which there are a great many – instead incessantly talking about insulation and the schools stimulus package.

There may be a longer-term strategy here – instead of bagging a reform plan he knows is popular with voters, Abbott perhaps prefers to concentrate on those issues where he knows the Government’s standing with voters is much weaker, and which might pay off longer term dividends.  However, it will come at the short-term cost of looking shrill and negative.

Rudd also cannily played the bipartisanship card, appealing for Abbott to stop carping and working with him on an issue important to Australian families.  Coming from a Prime Minister as every bit as aggressively political as his predecessor, it was an extraordinary statement, but one likely to go down well with voters.  Rudd also improved his communication, sounding a lot more like the Rudd of the 2007 election campaign than the unimpressive Prime Ministerial figure of recent months.

For health wonks looking for actual content, however, the debate was decidedly light-on. Just as Abbott failed to address the details of Rudd’s plan, Rudd gave minimal additional information about it even in response to detailed questions from journalists.  Without his own policy, of course, Abbott was left to repeat that he would provide his policy well before the election.

Rudd’s victory will no doubt gee up Labor MPs, but ultimately won’t matter.  The debate will be forgotten about by next week, let alone come the election.  But Labor outsmarted Abbott last week in trapping him into this debate and in doing so continue to direct the political agenda onto an issue where it knows it is streets ahead of the Opposition.

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