Treasurers’ debates. They’re not usually exciting, and this was no exception. Nonetheless, this face-off by Chris Bowen and Joe Hockey wasn’t just duelling numbers or trading slogans. There were a few surprises.
This may not be a good week for the Coalition. At the very least, it’s been an awfully bad day.
First, Joe Hockey, Shadow Treasurer, started off his debate speech sounding a lot like he was praising the government. ‘Our destiny is bountiful … the world wants our services … agriculture … innovation’. It’s one thing to include love of country and hope for the future in an opening argument – it’s quite another to give every indication that you think the country is in a wonderful situation. Once you do that, it’s hard to then make the point that things are so dire that your party needs to step in and clean up the mess.
Then there was the matter of expenditure figures. First, Tony Abbott said that the Coalition has planned to spend $18 billion. Later, Joe Hockey announced the figure was nearly $26 billion.
Asked to account for the discrepancy on Sky News’ PM Agenda this afternoon, Senate Opposition leader Barnaby Joyce stammered, stuttered and blustered. He protested that the Coalition’s costings would be given to Treasury to evaluate. He excused himself on the grounds that they didn’t have access to the latest figures. He accused Labor of destabilising the country to the point that the Coalition was having difficulty even working out its costings. And when reminded that he was being asked about expenditure, not costings, he took on a faintly alarmed expression and went on the attack.
At which point he rewrote history, and elevated Mark Latham to a position he once coveted (and may still do so). He referred to Julia Gillard being confronted by ‘a former Prime Minister’.
Andrew Robb, the Coalition’s putative Finance minister, was quickly rolled out to clarify the situation. There is no discrepancy, he explained. Hockey’s figures simply include Labor’s mining tax. Abbott’s did not.
Hold on a minute. Back up there.
This was a discrepancy in the Coalition’s expenditure figures. Why, then, would Hockey’s numbers include an as yet non-existent mining tax which is their opponent’s policy? A tax, moreover, that the Coalition have promised that they have no intention of ever implementing?
So as Monday draws to a close, we have: a Shadow Treasurer waxing lyrical about a bountiful life under Labor; that same Treasurer, his leader, his Senate leader and his colleague in Finance unable to explain a $7 billion discrepancy in expenditure figures; and the aforementioned Senate leader apparently unaware that his party defeated Mark Latham.
Tony Abbott could be forgiven, right now, for thinking that he has a lot in common with Garfield – that Monday is out to get him. I imagine he’d dearly love to draw a line under today, and hope that this doesn’t carry over into tomorrow’s news cycle.
There are some very important unanswered questions, though – and we can only hope that those in the media with access to him don’t forget to keep asking them.