Monday, September 02, 2013

Costings. Why the Coalition has gotten away with it, so far

The Coalition is sitting on a timebomb.

It has abused the spirit if not the letter of the new rules governing the Parliamentary Budget Office by citing the Office as support for its costings claims without releasing the PBO documents themselves.

Without seeing each document voters have no way of knowing whether the Office is being verbaled or whether the assumptions the Coalition has asked it to work with are realistic.

So far the tactic has worked for the Coalition. Without access to the documents themselves and only to the numbers the Coalition says they produce, Labor has been suckered in to making wild and incorrect claims about Coalition errors. Journalists know the claims are wrong. They have been shown PBO documents. They have been told they can make notes but not make copies before Coalition staffers whisk them from their hands.

When, operating in the dark, Labor claimed there were $10 billion of errors in the Coalition’s costings, the Coalition calmly sent its costings to the Treasury so that it could see there were not...

The $5.2 billion saving from losing 12,000 public servants is a case in point. Back in April Labor asked the Office to cost a loss of 20,000. The PBO pointed out that 4000 were going anyway and costed a cut of 16,000. The saving was $4.26 billion.

Labor’s Penny Wong thundered that the PBO had found “that even if Mr Abbott cut an additional 8,000 jobs – taking the total to 20,000 - he would be still be $700 million short of the savings he claims.”

The PBO hadn’t. It had costed a cut of 16,000. But more importantly Wong didn’t know that Labor’s costing was for a cut starting in July 2014, whereas the Coalition’s was for a start date of October 2013. The difference pulled an extra year of ongoing savings into the forward estimates.

But how could she have known? Costings paid for by the public are being held tightly by the Coalition as if they are private property. Even when it releases its complete account on Wednesday it does not plan to share with the public the documents that underpin it.

The system needs to be fixed. Should Hockey become Treasurer he should deny future oppositions the opportunity to misuse it as he has.

And he might be sorry. As a parting gift Labor and the Greens legislated to require the PBO to produce a “post-election audit” of all political costings within 30 days. All the potentially embarrassing details the Coalition has kept from us to date will be public property within 35 days.

In The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age

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