Kevin Rudd has thrown the lever to populism by calling for tighter restrictions on the sale of Australian land to foreign individuals and state-owned enterprises and admitting he feels ‘‘anxious’’ about foreign ownership.
The clearly vote-driven shift came as the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott faced off at the third and final leaders debate of the 2013 campaign at Rooty Hill RSL Club in Sydney.
Both men were noticeably tired, but managed to present a more civil atmosphere than at previous encounters, even if the questioning from voters took on a harsher edge.
Mr Rudd was pressed on his political assassination of Julia Gillard in late June, and Mr Abbott was criticised for his paid parental leave scheme.
An exit poll of the audience of 100 undecided voters scored the debate as a comfortable win for Mr Rudd with 45 votes, to Mr Abbott’s 38. However, 19 remained undecided.
Mr Rudd repeatedly hammered Mr Abbott over his paid parental leave scheme, calling it irresponsible, with at least one audience member agreeing.
Small businessman Ian told Mr Abbott: ‘‘I just think that a fork-lift driver from Mt Druitt should not be paying his taxes so a pretty little lady lawyer on the north shore on 180 grand a year can have a kid.’’
Declaring himself ‘‘old fashioned’’ when it comes to allowing foreign access to Australian land, Mr Rudd said he was ‘‘not quite as free market as Tony [Abbott] on this stuff.’’
He said he was far more in favour of joint venture approaches to ensure Australian land stayed in Australian hands.
The shift will be seen as rank populism which threatens to overturn a longstanding consensus in Australian mainstream politics between free market-oriented figures in both the Liberal Party and the ALP. The shift appeared to come without prior party consultation.
Mr Rudd was also forced to defend his sustained internal campaign against Ms Gillard this year.
He claimed he did ‘‘absolutely the right thing’’ by replacing her in June, despite the obvious damage to the government.
The second questioner – Amanda – asked if he ‘‘honestly’’ believed that he was not ‘‘destabilising’’ Ms Gillard’s leadership, and if he really thought voters had not seen through it.
‘‘I can say that through all of that, I believe I was doing absolutely the right thing by the party and by the country,” he said.
The question was one of several hostile queries directed at both men, although Mr Rudd received the majority.
Mr Abbott found himself defending his plans for budget management as Mr Rudd accused him of not committing to the full six years of the education spending promised by Labor and of having secret plans to close Medicare Locals at the expense of services and hundreds of jobs.
In response, Mr Abbott declared he would not close any Medicare Locals. This definitive guarantee also appeared to be improvised after he had pointedly left open the possibility of closures less than a week ago when he said: ‘‘Now, can I say that absolutely no Medicare Local will close? I’m not going to say that.’’
But it was in response to a complaint about foreign land sales, from a grandmother called Janine, that both leaders broke with Australia’s established globalism to shun foreign investment.
‘‘I’m a bit old fashioned on these questions, Mr Rudd said.
Mr Abbott, who admitted there were many circumstances where someone investing ‘‘hundreds of millions’’ was a good thing for Australia, said a Coalition government would lower the scrutiny threshold for the Foreign Investment Review Board to examine acquisition proposals above ‘‘about $15 million’’ – down from the current threshhold of more than $220 million.