Try as they might to stick to their domestic salvos in the final week of the election campaign, the leaders couldn't quite ignore the biggest story in the world.
China and the United States were at each other again in what was now being called an all-out trade war.
When The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age managed to squeeze in a question late on Tuesday afternoon to the Prime Minister, he quickly pivoted to domestic politics, saying the uncertainty meant now was not the time to experiment with Labor.
"Don't mention the war," observers sniggered in Canberra.
Foreign and security affairs rarely rate much mention during election campaigns, but this time there is louder grumbling about this fact among experts, reflecting the sense of urgency about a frank assessment of Australia's place in the world.
Whoever forms government next week will face a dangerous and fast-changing world, nowhere more profoundly than in how Australia positions itself in the increasing great-power rivalry between the United States and China.
The rapid consolidation of Chinese leader Xi Jinping's authoritarianism and outward assertiveness, and the arrival of Donald Trump and the transformation of US politics, means the competition is sharpening. The two countries most important to us - which just so happen to be the largest and most powerful in the world - could turn chilly, or even hostile.
Over the past fortnight, the Herald and The Age have discussed the next three years with the four principal frontbenchers: Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne, Defence Minister Christopher Pyne, and their respective Labor shadows Penny Wong and Richard Marles.
There are differences of style and emphasis, but the two sides are essentially aligned on the key questions. Both recognise Australia faces a highly disrupted period. Both see the US alliance as a bedrock. Both want relations with China to be as positive as possible while accepting that differences of values and interests mean we will have to brace ourselves for disagreements - though they recognise this is also the case with the US.
Both want Australia to become a bigger player in its neighbourhood by deepening relations with other important countries - India, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, Vietnam. They don't say it, but this will hedge our bets against a deteriorating US-China relationship and improve our clout in dealing with China, given many of these countries share our concern about the idea of a new regional order that centres around Beijing.
In the same vein, both sides support a big boost to Australian ties with the South Pacific, where China has been making strategic inroads.
Ultimately both support what is known as the "rules-based order", the international system that enables - if imperfectly - free movement, free trade, and the peaceful resolution of disputes.
What they all largely skirt around, however, is just how obvious are the headaches that loom for Australia out of the contest between Washington and Beijing. The sense of gravity among sober-minded experts can hardly be overstated.
Peter Varghese, the former head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade who is regarded as one of the nation's most serious strategic thinkers and not prone to over-dramatisation, says while Washington isn't yet trying to "contain" China, "that seems to be the direction in which the Americans are going".
"The real issue is whether we will see the US fundamentally move from an engagement framework to something that looks far more like a containment policy," he said.
"That would be very uncomfortable for Australia ... If the US does move towards a containment policy we could well find ourselves confronting that possibility of having to say no to the US on a matter that it considers to be a core national security interest. The stakes here are quite high."
An example, says Varghese, who is now Chancellor of the University of Queensland, would be if the US were to try to prevent China from becoming a technology superpower.
Experts are already talking about a "decoupling" of the two biggest economies. What if the US were to restrict research and development co-operation with China and weed Chinese companies out of US supply chains?
"Would they also seek to have Australia follow suit?" Varghese asks. "The idea of a US-led high-tech world and a China-led high-tech world which are at odds with each other seems to me to be a folly and not in Australia's interests."
Australia wants the US to remain the predominant power in our Indo-Pacific region for as long as possible, Varghese adds, but only if it does this by "lifting its own game and not by thwarting China's game".
Allan Gyngell, a former head of the intelligence analysis agency, the Office of National Assessments, says that Australian and US interests regarding China used to be aligned but have begun fundamentally to diverge. Australia's economy remains largely complementary to China's, says Gyngell, now an honorary professor at the Australian National University. It uses our resources, our energy, and our services such as higher education. The US's and China's used to be complementary: China was the factory that built things from American intellectual property. But increasingly China has become a direct rival.
Of US-China relations, Gyngell says: "The speed with which the amoeba is splitting apart has surprised me."
He says it has taken a while for Canberra to accept that US politics has changed for good. "We're not going to see another Democrat like Hillary Clinton or another Republican like George W. Bush in future," Gyngell says. "That's going to be very hard for Australia. The China relationship comes to the core of it because we do have very different interests [from the US] with China."
Nobody suggests this means we should in any sense get into bed with China. And it is clear, regardless of former Labor prime minister Paul Keating's recent attack on the intelligence community over its concerns about Beijing, that this will not feature in a Shorten government's thinking.
Labor's line of attack on the government, if it has one, is to say that its language towards China has been inconsistent, clumsy and, at times, unnecessarily provocative. But it is clear that Labor will have to grapple with the same underlying issues.
Wong, who has done a fair job of articulating Labor's deep thinking on the China challenge in so far as it is possible from opposition, told the Lowy Institute this month that Australia's approach must be "grounded in realities".
In short, Wong said China is here to stay as a great power and Australia needs it for its prosperity. But China does not share Australia's core values and these differences will affect interactions between the two countries.
These four points are a concise distillation of the very dilemma and challenge Australia faces.
Perhaps the most useful pledge Wong has been able to make from outside government is to have a more sophisticated national conversation about China. "I think it's important for us to have ... a better national understanding and a better national discussion about both the complexity and the consequential nature of our relationship with China."
That means within the government but also including the Australian public and the business sector.
To be fair on the government, Payne announced in March the establishment of a National Foundation for Australia-China Relations to pursue a similar goal.
Experts might be sceptical. The Lowy Institute's Sam Roggeveen summed up the feeling of many when he took to Twitter this week to vent his frustration. "Bipartisanship on China is becoming a form of collusion," he wrote. "Both sides would (understandably) rather avoid talking openly about the difficult choices we face, so they invent a high-minded reason not to. But not talking openly about those choices carries risks too."
Meanwhile both sides agree we need to buffer ourselves against the vicissitudes of the US-China relationship by expanding our relationships elsewhere.
China, like all great powers, prefers dealing with other countries one-on-one. That gives it the clout to get its way. By drawing closer to other countries that share our worry at the thought of a Chinese regional hegemony, we have a better chance of balancing Beijing's might.
Varghese says this is the new, overarching challenge for Australia. "While it's folly to think of China in terms of thwarting it, more and more it's going to make sense to construct a new equilibrium in terms of balancing China," he says.
Likewise, Gyngell notes that the good news for Australia is "we're not alone in this".
Both sides of politics recognise this. Pyne talks about deepening ties with South-East Asian nations through projects such as intelligence sharing, as well as the government's "step-up" with Pacific neighbours and the so-called "quadrilateral" grouping of democracies: Australia, the US, Japan and India.
Marles, meanwhile, talks about shaping our environment as best we can by finding "the leadership side of our international personality".
"That starts in the Pacific," he says. "The Pacific is a part of the world where countries like America, countries in Europe and in the Pacific itself expect us to have a leadership view."
The overwhelming feeling among close watchers is that whoever assumes the reins next week, there will be no radical departures. That is regarded as good news. Less good is the fact that whoever is in charge will face possibly the toughest set of circumstances in 75 years.
As Varghese sums up, "It's about as challenging and uncertain an international environment as any Australian government has faced really since the Cold War and arguably even going back to the second World War."
- SMH/The Age