Deciding who won the debate is proving confusing even for political experts. But Mr Peacock won in one sense just by not being demolished. As the phone-in response from viewers of four networks gave him a general edge over Mr Hawke, his real advantage was much more massive. Labor strategists had warned Mr Hawke against the debate, he insisted on going on in the belief that he could annihilate Mr Peacock, and he was proved utterly wrong.
Mr Hawke was at times presidential, only occasionally inept, masterful with figures and brutal in rebuttal. But he was also tense and edgy in his body language, playing with his pad and notes. His recurrent resort to a sermon on the inviolate nature of the individual’s innocence until proven guilty sometimes seemed self-serving and a cloak for a lack of frankness.
He looked especially unconvincing when using the “no need for a defence” defence against a question by Peter Bowers of the Herald on the theft of $US1,000 from his Sydney hotel room and trying the “I never comment on such matters” gambit to questions from Bowers and Laurie Oakes of Channel 10 on a reported phone tap on the telephone of the editor of The National Times, Mr Brian Toohey.
Mr Peacock, bouncing in from the start with an air of determined jauntiness which once again showed his remarkable resilience, was flaky on figures and specifics, at times laughably over-boosting to his own promises (“the most significant income tax reform in the history of our nation” was a mite extravagant for his income taxsplitting proposal). But he was more humourous and more folksy than the Prime Minister and grew steadily more surefooted as Mr Hawke’s early presidential sureness began to crack under probing questioning.
The “above the fray” superiority of Mr Hawke came unstuck when the ABC’s Richard Carleton, with whom the PM has a long-standing feud, came in fighting with a question based on the reported disgust with NSW politics of the former State Attorney-General, Mr Paul Landa, who died at the weekend. The question was short on taste but long on effect and Mr Hawke held his temper in check with a major effort, terming it “distasteful in the extreme”. But his reply was thin and less than magisterial. And Andrew Peacock drew the first of what was to be repeated applause from an obviously Liberal claque in the Press Club audience with his comment that: “Something is wrong in the state of NSW.”
The expected rout of Mr Peacock was not to be. By debate’s end the exposed nerve ends were those of the Prime Minister. On economic policy, on taxation, on who favours what assets tests and on which side of the House is more disarming in the nuclear sense, confusion reigned as it has throughout the campaign. So much remained up in the air, consigned to summits, still to be costed or smothered in generalities that any viewer seeking enlightenment on such issues would have watched vainly.
Hawke adroitly used his final summary to thank the people of Australia for their good sense and co-operation in a fine display of tribal leadership. Mr Peacock rather wittered away his last say in sounding too negative by half.
But what would have stayed in the minds of many viewers was Mr Hawke’s discomfiture on the subject of the bugging of Mr Toohey’s telephone and the whole security area. Unwisely, Mr Hawke made disparaging remarks about Mr Toohey and his newspaper. As a Labor Prime Minister, he faces particular difficulties inside his own party as well as outside on the issue of telephone taps; these difficulties are not likely to be diminished by denigration of the victim.
The minister responsible, the Attorney-General, Senator Gareth Evans, also provided an area of less than full-and-frank Hawke performance when questioning turned to the much hinted at but not yet fully revealed Human Rights Bill.
In all, Mr Hawke finished the evening curiously defensive for a man expected to win the debate very comfortably. The oddness of that situation is what will be causing him to ask himself this morning why on earth he let himself get into the whole business in the first place. Mr Hawke has learned a great deal from Sir Robert Menzies, but Menzies would never have let himself be trapped into this one.