Australian Prime Minister slumps after debate


CANBERRA, Australia — Australian opposition leader Kevin Rudd beat Prime Minister John Howard in a heated pre-election debate marred by claims of censorship, analysts and news media said Monday.

Rudd, the leader of the center-left Labor party, pledged to look after working families and take decisive action on climate change during the 90-minute debate late Sunday that was watched by more than 10 percent of the country’s 21 million people.

Howard, who is seeking a fifth and final term, took credit for Australia’s record 17 years of economic growth, and promised further prosperity in the form of tax cuts and continued low unemployment.

The majority of Australia’s newspapers awarded the debate victory to Rudd on Monday, running headlines such as “Rudd outpoints feisty PM” and “Rudd gets a wriggle on,” referring to a controversial “worm” graph that monitored the favorable reactions of 90 undecided voters recruited by one television network.

Even many conservative commentators awarded the evening to Rudd, saying he had an inherent advantage as a challenger pointing out the flaws in an incumbent who has served more than 11 years as prime minister.

Rudd — a bookish, Chinese-speaking former diplomat 18 years Howard’s junior — has held a commanding lead in opinion polls over the 68-year-old Howard, who has said he will retire even if he wins the election.

The so-called “worm,” a line graph controlled by a studio audience that judges the performance of the debaters as they are speaking, gave Rudd a 65 percent approval rating compared to Howard’s 29.5 percent. The rest were undecided.

The National Press Club, which organized the debate, cut Channel Nine’s broadcast midway through the debate, forcing the network to source a backup feed from another network.

The press club said the Nine network had violated an agreement not to use the graphic, which had also been opposed by the prime minister.

Nine’s Chief Executive John Westacott denied ever making the agreement, and called the press club’s decision to cut their broadcast an “outrageous act of censorship.”

Howard denied suggestions Monday that the press club had acted under orders from his Liberal party, which helped set the terms for the debate.

“The decision about the feed was taken by the National Press Club,” he told reporters.

Rudd attacked the press club’s decision, saying that “if you have a free debate about the country’s future … it should be reported freely by anybody.”