The wider economy went missing at today’s debate between Scott Morrison and Chris Bowen, as both Treasury spokesmen focused on disputes over policy costings and tax measures rather than discussing Australia’s broader economic challenges.

With economic data this week raising real questions about what would drive economic growth amid the end of the mining boom, low business confidence and historically weak wages growth and inflation, the debate could usefully have focused on where the parties saw growth beyond the housing boom of the last two years.

Instead, Morrison and Bowen, in frequently feisty exchanges, focused primarily on budget costings and disputes over each other’s numbers. Often they accused each other of wanting to have it both ways on the budget — an interesting sign that both sides are happy for now to stick with the implausible path to surplus mapped out in the budget papers over the next five years, even though both admit there are fiscal challenges ahead and ratings agencies are growing increasingly impatient with an eternally receding surplus.

With political journalists (apart from The West Australian’s Shane Wright) asking the questions, there was a lack of hard policy focus to the debate. Fairfax’s Mark Kenny and News’ Mal Farr both tried to push the debate into wider territory, but most of the questions stuck to familiar territory of policy costings and budget numbers. Morrison looked most ill at ease when pressed by moderator Chris Uhlmann on what work had been done by the government on its state income tax proposal, with Morrison effectively admitting no work had been done prior to the idea being put to the states, while Bowen failed to address Morrison’s point that Labor insisted the government’s $50 billion company tax cut was “unfunded” but counting the savings itself to offset its education spending.

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Who won? Score it a narrow win to Morrison, who was the more aggressive of the two and sharper with his points. But voters wondering what is going to replace the mining boom to drive economic growth and restart rising living standards in Australia would have been none the wiser after an hour and fifteen minutes of exchanges.

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