Shorten even added to the list of ideas as the debate went on. He signalled his intention to announce tougher tax rules on global companies like Facebook on Sunday, hinting at a new source of revenue for his spending plans.
One social issue divided the two leaders more than others. When one audience member asked about freedom of religion, Morrison spoke in favour of a new Religious Discrimination Act, something he would make a priority if he kept power.
Shorten responded with a defence of freedom of religious speech but counted, gently, the questioner’s point about speaking up against abortion. Shorten argued that women seeking abortions should not have to run the gauntlet of protestors trying to stop them.
Morrison’s tactics were to goad Shorten into a reaction, to keep asking questions and try to put his rival on the defensive.
Shorten’s response was to rebuff his opponent as a “space invader” for getting too close, prompting laughter from the crowd.
But Morrison was fighting on his preferred ground from the start. After a sedate opening, the debate picked up as soon as the subject turned to Labor’s policy to raise $56 billion over a decade from changes to franking credits on shares.
The Prime Minister turned this into a hit to older Australians who deserved a tax break rather than a tax grab.
“We’re talking about retirees, we’re talking about mums and dads, we’re talking about nan and pop,” he said.
The policy detail shows the Labor plan will allow pensioners and part-pensioners to keep their tax refunds from dividend imputation, as long as they do not hold the shares in a self-managed superannuation fund.
Morrison kept away from these details. If it is possible to send an emotive message about tax, he did it. Shorten’s response was to wade into the details.
At several key moments, Shorten insisted on extra time to make sure he could answer Morrison’s claims and defend the increase in tax revenue.
“It’s not a tax,” he said of the change to the tax refunds. He described the change instead as the removal of a concession that could no longer be afforded.
Morrison was quick to chip the Opposition Leader for his lengthy explanations. “He’ll have to talk for longer because he’s got more taxes to explain than I have,” he quipped.
This did not stop Shorten coming back to tax throughout the debate. He wanted every minute to argue that the Commonwealth could not afford a tax concession that had once cost $500 million a year but had mounted to more than $5 billion and was on its way to $8 billion.
“Fair’s fair,” Shorten said at one point to the Sky News host, David Speers. Morrison’s tactic was to chip in with a question in an attempt to put Shorten on the spot, forcing him to explain another detail.
Shorten’s response was to challenge every one of Morrison’s assertions, even if it meant demanding more time.
This eagerness for detail bore fruit toward the end of the debate when Shorten cited an estimate from the Australia Institute that about $77 billion of the government’s income tax cuts would go to the top 3 per cent of Australians by income.
“I would not trust your maths in a heartbeat,” Morrison said. But he did not have an alternative number. The government remains vulnerable to the charge that too many of its tax cuts go to wealthier workers.
The audience members laughed at the debating tactics but showed no sign of preferring one leader or the other. This was a change from the Seven Network’s debate on Monday when Shorten drew applause and emerged a clear winner.
The audience verdict showed the tightness of the contest — and perhaps the election. While 43 audience members backed Shorten, 41 backed Morrison. Another 16 were undecided.
David Crowe is Chief Political Correspondent of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.