Five weeks in a leaky boat

The 2010 election is a leaky boat, and we’re the poor bastards bailing frantically, trying to make it to the other side of August 21. We’re eight days out from that shore, and – if anything – the waters are just getting murkier.

This week it’s been all about numbers. The Coalition says Labor’s broadband can’t possibly be as fast as announced (1 Gigabit/second). Labor says the Coalition has ‘black holes’ in its budget, meaning that they can’t fund what they’re promised. Debt is huge. Debt is only 6% of our Gross Domestic Product. We wasted money on Building the Education Revolution. The BER was, on the whole, efficient. So it goes.

For the record? A broadband speed of 1 Gbit/sec is achievable using optical fibre – in fact, there had been speculation in the tech sector as to why Labor was ‘only’ promising 100Mbits/sec. Our debt is 6% of GDP – the equivalent of $6000 interest on a $100,000 debt. (And given I just paid off a $20,000 loan that slugged me around $3500, that’s pretty damn impressive.) The Orgill Report into the BER has identified some cost blow-outs, but concluded that it was an efficient program. There’s an excellent post on The Notion Factory going into the details.

This is fairly standard argy-bargy for any election campaign. It’s in each party’s best interests to make their opponent look as inept as possible. No surprises there.

Labor has also been pressuring the Coalition to submit their costing proposals to the Charter of Budget Honesty in Treasury. This was set up by the former Coalition government, with the aim of informing the public whether those promises can be kept. So far, neither party has submitted their full list of costings. The Coalition is lagging far behind, though, and there are serious questions as to whether they have counted slashing proposed – not currently funded – Labor programs in their savings.

Labor’s moral ground isn’t exactly high on this. During the 2007 election, they submitted their costings less than 24 hours before the election. Treasury had no chance to scrutinise the proposals. As such, the Coalition has been comfortable in saying that they’d ‘get their costings in’ before the deadline (this afternoon), and reminding everyone what Labor did last time around. Time was clearly ticking, though, and Joe Hockey was pressured into giving a commitment on The 7.30 Report that the proposals would be submitted.

But then there was a new development. Early in the week, the Sydney Morning Herald published a ‘leaked’ document showing that there was a shortfall of $840 million in the Coalition’s costings.

Yes, another leak. That brings us up to an average of one per week of the campaign.

Predictably, Swan jumped all over it – here was proof of what he’d been saying all along. The howls of outrage from Joe Hockey and Liberal Finance spokesperson Andrew Robb were likewise unsurprising. It was sabotage, it was Swan, we can’t trust Treasury. Hockey even went so far as to accuse Swan directly in that same 7.30 Report interview.

It’s worth mentioning that the document in question was dated July 5 – 12 days before the election was announced – and had been publicly available for some time.

Now here we are on Friday morning, and the Coalition have said flatly that they will not submit any more costings to Treasury until the Australian Federal Police have investigated the source of the leak. Andrew Robb was doing the rounds of the media, proclaiming that ‘It could mean that they (Labor) steal an election through the actions of a criminal act. We are not going to be patsies and be played off a break by people who are engaged in criminal activities to create a political problem for us”. Instead, they will submit their costings – on Wednesday next week – to an as-yet unnamed ‘independent third party’.

See what they’re doing here?

The Coalition are playing the role of ‘victim’ to the hilt. This is ‘clearly’ a Labor plot to smear them.

But who really benefits from the leak?

Sure, Labor gets to point to this document and say, ‘Look, we were right all along’. They can hold up the Treasury analysis as proof that the Coalition has badly mismanaged their costings.

But the Coalition gets a lot out of this, too. They can point the finger at Labor and shout, ‘J’accuse!’, branding them outright criminals. They can recapture the underdog status that they’d lost when their polling numbers went up – after all, they’re in an impossible situation. They can obscure the $840 million shortfall with outrage. Most usefully, they now have an excuse not to submit their costings – they ‘can’t trust Treasury’. The third-party analysts won’t get to see the costings until Wednesday, which is simply not enough time to scrutinise them properly. Finally, the whole point of the Budget of Charter Honesty is to ensure that costings can be checked against real figures – and there’s no guarantee this third party will have access to Treasury’s numbers.

On the face of it, I’d have to say the Coalition benefits more from this leak. The fact that it came at a time when their broadband plan was shown up as vastly inferior to Labor’s is probably no coincidence.

The Labor Party has no excuse for not submitting its costings to Treasury in a timely fashion in 2007. It was underhanded. Equally, the Coalition has no excuse for playing the same game. Its claims that Treasury cannot be trusted are completely disingenuous – anyone remember Godwin Grech and ‘Utegate’? That was a confirmed leak from Treasury, but there were no calls for a massive AFP investigation from the Coalition then, no claims that Treasury was hopelessly compromised. And no wonder – the Coalition was caught out, clearly benefiting from Grech’s behaviour.

We had a low-key Senate inquiry into ‘Utegate’ that fizzled into nothing. Grech lost his job, but walked away scot-free. This time, though, the howls are loud and the banners being waved high.

There is little chance of an AFP investigation into the ‘$840 million’ leak, and the Coalition has to know that. From their perspective, it’s a win-win situation. Either there’s no investigation, and they get to send their costings to a hand-picked accounting firm at the last moment – or there is an investigation, and the remainder of the campaign will get overshadowed by the spectre of a corrupt Treasury. And you can just bet that Robb, Hockey and Abbott will be out there making careful statements about what a terrible thing this is, and how under Howard this never could have happened.

Even if it comes out that the leak came from the Coalition itself, by that time the election will be over. If the Coalition is in power a junior staffer will be sacked, there’ll be a couple of tough interviews with Kerry O’Brien and Laurie Oakes, and that will be it. If they lose – well, they’d be the Opposition, and Oppositions tend to get away with more than governments. It’d be good for a few sledges in Question Time, but that’s all.

The real damage here is to the reputation of Treasury, and to our access to the inner workings of the political process. The Coalition can use this to keep casting doubt on everything Labor does.

Meanwhile, we’ll be out in the cold with no idea whether either party can do what they promised. If we believe Treasury’s corrupt, Labor’s figures come into question. If we believe Treasury, we won’t be able to look at the Coalition’s figures in time. Either way, we go to the polls in a state of utter confusion.

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5 Responses to Five weeks in a leaky boat

  1. […] at all – remember back in 2010, when they got out of submitting their costings to Treasury byaccusing them of colluding with the government to ‘steal an election’? In fact, the Coalition’s […]

  2. […] Shadow Finance Minister Andrew Robb? At the time, he blustered that ‘It could mean that they [Labor] steal an election through the […]

  3. […] Shadow Finance Minister Andrew Robb? At the time, he blustered that ‘It could mean that they [Labor] steal an election through the […]

  4. […] Abbott and his Coalition colleagues repeatedly tried to tear down Treasury’s credibility. They claimed that Treasury was responsible for leaking some of their costings, at the behest of the caretaker Labor government, and withheld their numbers from the Charter of […]

  5. […] to Treasury’s costings for both the Opposition and government. If you remember, the Coalition flatly refused to submit their costings to Treasury under the Charter of Budget Honesty during the election campaign, claiming that Treasury was […]

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