Both sides seek edge in debate about debates

Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott seem a little confused about their respective roles.

Rudd, the Prime Minister, is proposing weekly debates throughout the election campaign, beginning with a snap debate at the National Press Club tonight and then one on each of the next four Sunday evenings before September 7th.

Abbott, the Opposition Leader, should be scrambling to agree, loudly and publicly, before Rudd can change his mind.

Debates are traditionally one of the very few occasions where the challenger gets to share the same stage - and same status - as the incumbent.

Typically, there's little for the sitting Prime Minister to gain from elevating their opponent, and Opposition Leaders are regularly judged to have won the debates.

Past Prime Ministers have been far more niggardly about sharing that stage than Rudd is being.

Paul Keating faced John Howard twice in 1996, but Howard only ever agreed to one debate at each of the four elections he contested as Prime Minister.

In 2010, Abbott had one debate against Julia Gillard in the campaign's first week, at which the performance of both leaders was widely panned.

Later in the campaign the two leaders also appeared on the same night, though not together, at a people's forum at Rooty Hill RSL in Western Sydney.

It was a triumphant evening for Abbott, who spoke after Gillard, made a point of being more casual in his delivery and received a much warmer welcome from the crowd.

Abbott obviously still has fond memories of Rooty Hill three years later.

The Liberal Party has responded to Rudd's offer of five debates with a counter-proposal of one formal debate and two more voter forums, one in Brisbane and the other at Rooty Hill.

The Liberals have specifically proposed that Abbott would again get to speak after Rudd at Rooty Hill, though they suggest the leaders should be on stage together in Brisbane.

They have refused the offer of a debate tonight.

There's only one reasonable interpretation of the Liberal proposal: Abbott doesn't want the repeated, high-profile scrutiny that would come from weekly debates against Rudd.

If Abbott were confident that he could out-perform Rudd there's no way he would pass up the chance to face him five times.

Rudd and Labor will mock Abbott's counter proposal as a sign that he's scared to debate. The best political attacks have an element of truth to them.

Nor, I suspect, does Abbott relish the thought of weekly grillings on national television by senior members of the Canberra press gallery.

Abbott has rarely looked comfortable even at his own daily press conferences.

He often ends them abruptly after only a few questions from journalists and sometimes he doesn't take any at all.

Rooty Hill patrons will no doubt come up with a couple of pointed queries, but on balance Abbott can trust they will be less challenging than what the professionals serve up.

Rudd almost certainly didn't expect Abbott to accept his offer, but he won't mind.

Rudd has performed very well in the only two debates he's taken part in, against Howard in 2007 and against Abbott in a health policy debate before he lost the Labor leadership in 2010.

A weekly debate schedule means a large portion of the campaign unfolds on Rudd's terms, shaped by events that suit Rudd's skill set.

Abbott refusing to come to the party is a win for Labor anyway.

Expect Rudd to have almost as much fun challenging Abbott to show up as he would at an actual debate.