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Costings are a farce without independence

The costings debate in this election campaign has moved from silliness to farce because the stakes are higher.

It's not just about the normal pressure for parties to prove they can afford their promises. In this campaign the Coalition is also under pressure to provide costings that give substance to its mantra that it will pay off the debt and the deficit faster than the scandalous wastrels from the Labor Party.

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Coalition promises to reduce debt by one-third and add $11 billon to budget surpluses.

Judged against the normal benchmark of proving they can pay for their policies, and have made offsetting savings, the numbers released by the Coalition easily passed muster.

Judged against the requirement to prove a huge difference between the parties on economic management, they raised more questions.

Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb finally released detailed costings late yesterday that they said improved the budget bottom line by $11.4 billion over the next four years and allowed them to pay down an additional $30 billion from the national debt.

They'll pay off some of the debt by selling Medibank Private, by not building the national broadband network and by using most of their claimed bigger surpluses.


It's those claimed surpluses that are more contentious. More than 40 per cent of the budget savings itemised yesterday were from the sort of tweaking that political parties do when they want their sums to add up to a particular number.

The Coalition is counting on $2.5 billion in savings from allowing for a smaller buffer in the budget's ''contingency reserve'' for possible spending overruns by individual departments and $990 million from increasing the ''efficiency dividend'' - an annual savings requirement from the public service - which Labor had already ratcheted up.

It is sticking by the estimate that it will save $2.4 billion in interest payments from not proceeding with the national broadband network, $800 million more than calculated in a Treasury costing leaked to the Herald last week.

Labor's calculation is that the Coalition promises would blow out the budget bottom line by $5 billion over the next four years, rather than improving it by $11 billion.

In truth both parties have been splashing money in the marginals - Labor's gifts have totalled more than $1 billion and the Liberals' at least $900 million. Both have cut spending to offset their largesse. No matter which had been in power during the global financial crisis, the budget would have been in deficit and the government would have had a debt.

Without a truly independent procedure, the truth about the difference in costings cannot be told during a campaign.


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