Federal Election 2016: Dissect the ABC leaders' debate as Turnbull and Shorten prepare to face-off

Their natural habitat is sparring from behind the despatch boxes of Parliament House, but tonight will see the campaign spotlight shine on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten in the first national free-to-air leaders' debate.

The battle will likely centre on the issue of pre–election costings, with Mr Turnbull seeking to hammer home the Coalition's point that Labor is creating a "budget black hole" in announcing more spending measures than it is finding areas to save money.

Bill Shorten will focus on the fact his party has released more policies than the government, and there are some areas such as health and education where the need for funding outweighs a desire for fiscal conservatism.

The theatre

A prime minister has the benefit of incumbency during an election campaign, but the moment they agree to a debate, they are held at the same level as the opposition leader.

Bill Shorten has made much of the fact he has attended dozens of town hall meetings across the country in the lead up to this campaign.

While it has likely boosted his confidence as he enters the debate, the National Press Club is a very different beast — the relaxed and informal setting of speaking to the party faithful will be replaced by a panel of senior Canberra press gallery journalists and a live national television audience.

The debate is a direct pitch to the voters of Australia and an opportunity to take the opponent to task, but it is unlikely to be an all–in brawl.

Leaders' debates in recent times have become fairly beige, with combatants taking a risk-averse approach to winning over public opinion.

One only has to look at the introduction of "The Worm" to televised debates to see those charged with controlling that instantaneous gauge of public opinion respond well to platitudes, and negatively to attacks.

Picking the moment to play the aggressor is key, and it will be only be a matter of time before each leader personalises the fight — Mr Turnbull trotting out his catchphrase of "billion-dollar Bill" and Mr Shorten characterising the Prime Minister as an out-of-touch toff.

The preparation

Both leaders would have been involved in daily preparation for weeks now, memorising the facts and figures their strategists believe can deliver blows to their opponents.

To that end, the memorising of the party lines and metaphors would now be well entrenched in their minds.

But despite the preparation, quickly developed responses to surprising comments can also sway the momentum.

Mr Turnbull will have to respond to criticism over the Coalition's health and education funding commitments — something Labor sees as his key weakness.

On the other hand, Mr Shorten is preparing for an onslaught on the economy, and whether Labor can be trusted to manage the national purse strings.

Everything will be choreographed, from the body language to the choice of suit and tie.

The verdict

Different commentators may have very different views on who walks out of the National Press Club the winner of the debate.

For the incumbent, it is a somewhat easier prospect to convince the electorate that changing government is a risk.

For the challenger, the task is to sell a new hope.

But this early on in the campaign, it is unlikely there will be a killer blow that can be fed off of until July 2.

Source: ABC News

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