In the last days of the 1996 election campaign, treasurer Ralph Willis was duped into releasing what he thought was a letter outlining secret Coalition policies. It proved to be a fake, and it all blew up in his face, sealing Labor's defeat.
On Thursday, in the last days of this campaign, something similar happened to Treasurer Chris Bowen. With Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Finance Minister Penny Wong, he stood before journalists in Melbourne's Commonwealth Parliamentary Offices to release secret Treasury and Finance Department costings he said demonstrated a $10 billion ''black hole'' in the Coalition's policies.
''There is an error of $10 billion in the claimed $30 billion of savings the opposition released yesterday,'' he said. ''This is based on advice from the departments of Treasury and Finance and the Parliamentary Budget Office.''
Mr Bowen and Ms Wong released three pieces of official advice, all months old, in which ministers had asked Treasury, Finance and the PBO to cost what they took to be Coalition policy. The departments came up with figures showing lower savings than the Coalition has claimed.
Ms Wong declared the officials' advice showed that ''$1 in every $3 that [the Coalition] counted as savings doesn't exist''.
The Prime Minister chimed in, declaring: ''What we're doing today is calling Mr Abbott on his truthfulness. This is a $10 billion fraud on the Australian people.''
But no, it wasn't. In an unprecedented rebuke to their ministers, late on Thursday, Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson and Finance secretary David Tune issued a joint statement disowning the figures released in their name.
''At no stage … has either department costed opposition policies,'' they said, implying that their costings were based on assumptions supplied by the government.
''Different costing assumptions, such as the start date of a policy, take-up assumptions, indexation and the coverage that applies, will inevitably generate different financial outcomes.''
Moreover, they said, the costings they supplied to the government were based on one of the two accounting methods that both parties confusingly insist on using in budgets. The Coalition's costings were based on the other. That, too, they said, produces different figures.
The bottom line: We were not costing the Coalition's policies, so don't drag us into criticisms of their costings.
Later, head of the budget office Phil Bowen issued his own statement, concluding: ''Unless all of the policy specifications were identical, the financial implications could vary markedly.''
Someday, someone will explain to us how Labor could run a campaign as badly thought-out as this one. Right now, it seems just inexplicable.