The night Mr Showman took on Mr Competent


Robert Doyle rolled Denis Napthine on the basis that he could sell the Liberals better on television. That might well be true. But he cannot yet outsell Steve Bracks.

Last night showed that he has yet to extricate himself from the ball and chain of the Kennett years, and his television persona had an element of showmanship that some will admire but others will abhor. Smiling too brightly and too often makes one’s opponent look more grounded – and more sincere.

Doyle knew he was up against Mr Nice Guy, and he was careful not to slug him. He had been well prepared for this first big gig, but his first few answers were slow and stilted, as he tried to rein in the naturally ebullient delivery.

Facts were at his fingertips, and he scored hits. He attacked the drop in the surplus, cited the Auditor-General’s warning that the state’s economy was vulnerable and asked whether the poll, and the debate, had been called now so the government could duck scrutiny.

He had modified his position on his own costings; caught on the hop at a doorstop, he had promised independent costings but said his auditor would not be named. Apparently having realised this position was untenable, last night he had a name ready.

But he fudged to escape questions about the credibility of his policies in the wake of the Kennett years. It is his side that is now struggling to escape “guilty party” status, and it is proving a sticky task.

He tried to establish himself as an expert on hospitals, serving only to remind his opponent that he was parliamentary secretary for health while Kennett closed hospital beds. Had he been involved in those decisions? The question is still unanswered.

Bracks claimed that Kennett had also promised to increase police but had cut them; why should the public believe Doyle? He responded with the point that swinging voters must believe if he is to win them: that he is a different man to Kennett.

He might have had more success in convincing them of his sincerity without his final hand-on-the-heart declarations of love for this state. America is the land of gushing patriotism. Australians tend to save theirs for the great historical moments. This debate was not one of them.


The apparent genuineness with which Mr Doyle talked about the Liberals having learnt from their years in opposition: “Over the last three years, this is a different Liberal Party. We’ve had a hard lesson. We’ve had to go out and listen to people . . . and we have done that. We have done the hard yards.”

Asked if he had anything good to say of his opponent, Mr Doyle was unable to avoid seeking a political point. He followed Mr Bracks’ carefully judged reply with a limp: “I think he’s a nice guy. I’m just very concerned that not a lot’s getting done.”

First published in The Age.