Two-thirds of Channel Nine’s studio audience of "undecided voters" gave the debate to Mark Latham who indeed did all that an Opposition Leader need do to gain the advantage in such circumstances, and perhaps even a little more. John Howard’s shortcomings in the debate environment have been widely remarked upon, perhaps excessively so, but it does appear that he has never won one as Prime Minister and it is with good reason that he will resist calls throughout the campaign for a re-match.
The outcome provides further support for the conventional wisdom that debates have little to offer for the incumbent, a perception that goes back a long way in Australia. No prime minister would agree to a televised debate until 1984, when Bob Hawke could hardly say no as Labor had made such an issue out of Malcolm Fraser’s refusal to play ball in 1983, going so far as to run a television advertisement featuring an empty chair and a challenge to Fraser.
A brief journey through the historical record since:
1984, November 26: Peacock 50 def. Hawke 37 (Spectrum poll).
1987: Once bitten, Bob Hawke chickens out, leaving John Howard’s supposed debating shortcomings unexposed for another decade.
1990, February 25: Hawke 46 def. Peacock 36 (Newspoll).
1993, February 14: Hewson 45 def. Keating 31 (Newspoll).
1993, March 7: Keating 44 def. Hewson 38 (Newspoll).
1996, February 11: Howard 50 def. Keating 36 (Newspoll).
1996, February 25: Howard 54 def. Keating 36 (Newspoll).
1998, September 13: Beazley def. Howard, narrowly, according to reports on how the worm played out – no poll located.
2001, October 14: Beazley 55 def. Howard 35 (Newspoll).
Including yesterday’s outcome as a win for Latham, that leaves two wins for incumbents out of nine starts. In only half of the eight case studies did the winner of the debate go on to win the election – however, Andrew Peacock’s better-than-expected performance in the 1984 election was widely credited to his strong performance in the debate, and the impact of John Hewson’s win in the first debate in 1993 was diminished since it took place early in the campaign. Certainly John Howard and his advisers would concur on this point.