Hockey the winner on points but ...
The Bowen versus Hockey Q&A debate proved to be a step up from the Rudd v Abbott dullathon, in much the same way that a Big Mac is a step up from plain cardboard - there's a bit more flavour of an indeterminate kind but not much more substance.
The Q&A format meant there were a couple of fine tweets that would have greatly improved the leaders' declamations. (A baby boomer work-for-the-pension scheme is a policy in search of a party when the kiddies realise what their taxation destiny will be; there is indeed a disconnect between having a "budget crisis" and simultaneously splurging on a Rolls-Royce maternity leave scheme that only the Greens support.)
The combination of audience questions and Tony Jones' supplementaries proved superior to the overworked Press Club propositions. The Treasurer and his shadow certainly provided better theatre than their leaders (faint praise) and a couple of times they threatened to actually debate.
They engaged directly in some argy-bargy and occasionally found themselves on the ropes working up a sweat - Joe Hockey over absolutely-no-GST-but-we'll-look-at-it and when confronted with his history of supporting an emissions trading scheme; Chris Bowen on Gonski funding further out and being Treasurer of a government so poor at implementation that it's still posting GFC emergency cheques.
But ultimately it was the same old routine, leaving the voter with the same old quandary: is it a matter of intellectual dishonesty or an absence of intellect?
Neither Bowen nor Hockey was prepared to level with the audience on the nation's looming taxation demands, a failure highlighted by both sides running away from improving the GST. Labor ran further and faster than the Liberals, but the Liberal performance over any "big new tax" other than their own and perpetuating an illusion of a lower tax future has been at least as shameful.
The Coalition has been wildly successful in flogging the government debt horse and Hockey showed no inclination to dismount, never mind that the beast is only one-fifth equine and four-fifths canard. Bowen attempted and failed, like his predecessor, to put the deficit issue in perspective. The pink batts have stuck.
And that was the core of the problem on display on Monday night: a government incapable of standing on the relative success of its fiscal big picture thanks to the focus on failures in detail and looking after some select union mates; an opposition that's so successful in beating up the government's shortcomings that it hasn't had to go beyond sweeping generalisations and the Magic Pudding aspects of Hockeynomics.
Both have finished up abandoning principles and squawking "me too" when the other seems to have a policy that's a vote winner - the Coalition on Gonski, Labor on something as loony as a Northern Territory company tax haven.
To score the event as a debate, Hockey managed to continue to set the major terms as debt and deficit, although the practised scowl and fake concern over alleged crises wear thin with just a little prodding. Bowen was bogged down in endlessly pursuing the Coalition's costings, which aren't forthcoming - a pursuit that receives the answer "we're not going to be quite as bad
When the government's own record on getting numbers to add up is a sorry one, the scare campaign lacks fright. Besides, as Ross Gittins has explained from time to time, the fiscal forecasting game they are arguing about is largely beyond them.
In their summaries, both came down to making the assertion that they should be trusted the most, that they just won't be as bad as the other mob. To justify that, Bowen weakly tried to rely on Australia avoiding recession in Labor's first term.
Hockey was allowed to get away with a bigger stretch in comparing apples and oranges by claiming credit for the Coalition being in power when the commodities boom was taking off.
If manner counted, Hockey bullied more, stonewalling on where the cuts would be felt. Bowen appeared surprisingly young - you might have thought a spell as immigration minister would age anyone.
At the end of the show, there was not much from either to sway anyone who had not already made up their minds. We learnt nothing and were not surprised. Bowen weakened the case Hockey started with, but couldn't kill it. Hockey only negated and offered nothing positive with which to conclusively grab victory, but when allowed to define the topic in a debating contest, that can be enough to win.
So it went to Hockey on points while those who are not true believers are left looking for option C: none of the above.