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Honours even in leaders debate
Honours even: The leaders' debate. Picture: Steve Ferrier/ The West Australian

Colin Barnett and Mark McGowan emerged from the only head-to-head debate of the election campaign unscarred - but neither man landed a knockout blow on the other.

In a debate that focused on economic management, State debt, infrastructure priorities and WA's relationship with Canberra, the Premier and Opposition Leader delivered safe, mistake free
performances that both camps were pleased with.

Mr Barnett, who won a pre-debate coin toss and elected to speak first, pitched himself as a WA statesman, highlighting the importance of developing the State's economic relationship with Asia in a crucial decade, emphasising his record on big resource projects.

Mr Barnett said he had restored pride and confidence in WA while standing up to Canberra and delivering city changing projects including sinking the Northbridge rail, Elizabeth Quay and a Burswood football stadium, while delivering four budget surpluses during in a volatile economic climate.

Mr McGowan said he was focused on the priorities of "ordinary people in the suburbs and towns", including what he described as a plan to fix Perth's congestion by building his Metronet rail plan, using Royalties for Regions to fix dangerous country roads and making "tough decisions" to fund his infrastructure priorities.

Neither Mr Barnett or Mr McGowan outlined any new policies during the hour long debate, and each stuck largely to statements and points they have publicly made on countless prior occasions.

In a stark contrast between the men, Mr McGowan chose to deliver his answers to the television audience directly down the barrel of the camera, while Mr Barnett preferred to address his answers to his questioners - a panel of five WA political journalists moderated by ABC newsreader James McHale.

Mr Barnett was forced to defend his Decision to bring Treasurer Troy Buswell back into his Cabinet despite his well chronicled troubles in his personal life, saying Mr Buswell was one of the most outstanding ministers he'd ever worked with and who had never done anything illegal.

Mr McGowan chose to attack Mr Buswell's record as a Minister, declaring he had presided over an explosion in State debt as Treasurer, record public housing wait lists as Housing Minister and congested roads as Transport Minister.

Mr McGowan was grilled over his relationship with Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who has been told by WA Labor to stay away during the State campaign, which he attempted to deflect by saying the election would be fought on State issues.

Asked about WA's debt, which has grown from $3.6 billion to $18 billion since Mr Barnett took power, the Premier said it was necessary to borrow to pay for infrastructure including $9 billion building new hospitals.

He conceded he was unlikely to bring debt back down to 2008 levels while the State continued to invest in infrastructure.

Mr McGowan was asked three times to explain what his plan was to reduce the State's debt but he declined to do so.

He insisted his promise that a football stadium at Subiaco's Kitchener Park could be delivered in time for the 2018 football season.

Mr Barnett said the shift would set the project back two years and would deliver a different, inferior building to what he proposes for Burswood, which would have wider concourses and could be expanded in capacity in future.

Charged with the perception he was arrogant, Mr Barnett asked rhetorically if it was arrogant to build a children's hospital before a stadium, commit extra money to the not for profit community services sector and promise health checks for every preschool aged child.

In summary, Mr Barnett focused on his plan to diversify WA's economy by focusing on science and highlighted the importance of Asia.

"Right now this decade is a special moment in our history. This is the time of Chinese expansion ... We can't wait 10 or 20 years to take advantage of it," Mr Barnett said.

Mr McGowan hammered his mantra of better priorities.

"On March 9 people in WA will have a choice. You can stick with the old ways, the broken promises, the increases in debt, the increases in cost of living, or you can go in a new direction," Mr McGowan said.