Last night’s ‘economic debate’ on QnA was a fairly partisan affair, with the crowd cheering even the lamest lines from ‘their team’.
It did, however, cement in my mind what a joke the whole pre-election ‘costings’ charade has become. The simple fact is that governments have a lot of help costing and implementing their values once in Government and that neither side is likely to have a multi-billion dollar black hole.
Debt aversion, for better or worse, is part of the Australian political landscape (thanks to Keating), and both sides pay more than lip service to this fact. The fact that the ALP shredded their economic credibility by (stupidly) promising a surplus and delivering a large (and widening) deficit speaks to this fact.
The disappearing surplus was the ALP’s gift to Hockey last night, and he used it to devastating effect. Each time Bowen seemed to have Hockey pinned on some detail, Hockey was able to fight back by appealing to the success of the Howard Government in balancing the budget – and the failure of the ALP to deliver as promised.
Hockey’s pitch was: let’s get the adults back in charge. It won the day.
Bowen’s riposte was that Hockey’s numbers did not add up – but he was unable to prosecute his brief. Bowen became frustrated and bogged down in detail, and lost confidence when he was pinned down on what Gonski would cost over the final two years. Bowen’s Gonski flub followed a smaller flub on the NDIS where he had been unable to nominate where the final 15bn required to fund the program would come from.
Though both Bowen and Hockey both dodged questions on costings, it seemed worse when the sitting Treasurer (who claimed costings were all ‘public and laid out) would not state the numbers. It eroded his apparent competence.
In the end, Hockey was able to morph the public distrust of ‘cuts’ that Bowen was fomenting into a case for ‘prudence’.
I don’t know if the questions were plants, but two questions on big ticket ALP schemes that are not fully funded gave Hockey the opening he needed to mount an emotive case for prudence. Gonski and the NDIS could be made sustainable, he said, only if there was restraint in all other parts of government spending – and history showed that only his side could achieve this.
While Hockey did not nominate what parts of Government spending that would come under the knife, it didn’t hurt his case much. He enjoyed a free ride on the strong public perception that the ALP is bad with money.
By keeping the debate high level, and focusing on the diverging recent history of the two parties, Hockey bent Bowen back and snapped him. Bowen was underprepared, and Hockey got under his skin and made him frustrated and catty.
If you believe the polls the ALP really needed a win. They didn’t get one. The main consolation for ALP strategists is that few swinging voters are likely to have been watching.