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Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten square off in last night's leaders debate in Perth.

Seven things we learned from the leaders debate

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten have finally gone head-to-head on the campaign trail in a nationally televised hour-long debate held in the 7 News Perth studios.

As Newspoll data shows the race to be next Prime Minister tightening to 51-49 in Labor’s favour and less than three weeks until the country goes to the polls, our Government Relations team examines some of the major themes of last night’s showdown.

  1. Economy, economy, economy
    If there was ever any doubt about the central plank underpinning the Coalition’s bid for re-election, then it was well and truly dispelled last night. At every chance he got, Mr Morrison returned to his own economic credentials, those of his party and his view that Labor lacks similar capabilities. Expect to hear similar lines being rolled out repeatedly over the next few weeks.
  2. Stability, stability, stability
    Labor’s equivalent of the Coalition’s focus on economics is clearly going to be a message of stability – and a verbal guarantee that if Mr Shorten enters The Lodge, he will still be there in three years’ time. It’s an understandable tack given the drama that transpired last August, when first Peter Dutton challenged then-PM Malcom Turnbull and then Mr Morrison took over the top job. Of course, the merry-go-round previously started with Labor and Kevin Rudd being replaced by Julia Gillard, who was in turn replaced again by Mr Rudd. Both leaders were at pains to point out party rules had since changed to avoid history repeating itself.

  1. Flexible Bill
    Based on this debate, Labor won’t risk dying on the hill of historical policies ahead of the May 18 polling date. In one of the debate’s more revealing moments, Mr Shorten quite happily credited the Coalition with “stopping the boats” and acknowledged the turnback policy had been an effective counter-measure. That said, the reaction of Labor’s traditional base to that view could be interesting. Mr Shorten also showed a more conciliatory approach to a question without notice about what each leader admired about their opponent. He did have extra time to think given Mr Morrison responded first but saying that he respected the Prime Minister’s commitment to tackling mental health issues was a nice touch.

    1. Speaking frankly
      After a notable earlier campaign slip-up on the topics of superannuation and tax, Mr Shorten fared well in the debate when it came to explaining what the proposed changes to franking credits would mean and how many people it would actually apply to. A question from the audience that might have proved tricky actually turned out to be an opportunity for Mr Shorten to simply explain a policy that many people may well have been confused about.

  1. Clive may matter
    A question from the audience about Clive Palmer’s effect on the election (and his preference deal with the Coalition), showed the Queensland billionaire is much more than a curiosity in this race. Mr Morrison openly queried what the difference was between the Coalition’s arrangement with Mr Palmer’s United Australia Party and Labor’s links with the Greens and suggested Mr Shorten had also tried to do a deal with Mr Palmer. Mr Shorten denied that and asked whether voters wanted to be getting behind a Coalition that was prepared to deal with Mr Palmer and Pauline Hanson. Watch this space!

  1. The zing factor
    Some nice little digs were scored by both leaders at stages. Mr Shorten was quick to point out that strong pre-polling showed an appetite for change – although it could equally show an appetite for convenience – and suggested the Liberal Party was happy to be partners with the Nationals, except when it didn’t suit them (in reference to Pauline Hanson). But the Opposition Leader’s retort of “that’s great, we’ve got a Prime Minister spending his time in the motor pages” wasn’t his best moment given Mr Shorten wasn’t able to name the price of a Nissan Leaf electric car. Mr Morrison enjoyed a fun moment when he was able to ask (reflecting a Libs advertising theme): “what’s the total tax BILL?” … which brings us to what could be a pivotal theme come May 18.

  1. What’s it going to cost?
    An extension to Mr Morrison’s fallback on the economy was his repeated attempts to have Mr Shorten reveal the cost of Labor policies, particularly those related to climate change. Courtesy of this debate, it’s now on the record that Mr Shorten was not willing to get that granular and instead answered with questions of his own (“what’s the cost of not acting on climate change?”) and an assertion that tackling climate change was an investment in the future.

Come May 18, we’ll know whether voters are buying that logic or instead sticking with what they know.

Mr Morrison and Mr Shorten will square off in another debate in Brisbane on Friday.

Canning’s Purple’s Government Relations team are experts at engaging with politicians and government departments – if you need help with reaching out, contact one of the team.

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