Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Costello versus Swan: The love-in


We were promised a debate.

Instead we were presented with two men in identical ties who smiled at each other across desks angled together on the National Press Club stage and agreed with almost everything the other one said.

The long handshake for the cameras at the end seemed genuine. “We will have to stop meeting like this”, quipped Wayne Swan. Or perhaps they were both just expressing relief that it was over, and that neither had made a mistake.

Actually Wayne Swan made several...

But they were minor, the result of nervousness. He said “15 per cent” when he meant 50 per cent, and then corrected himself. He said he was looking forward to being the Treasury Secretary when he meant Treasurer, and then corrected himself, and so on.

Peter Costello, much more used to answering questions after eleven years of Question Time, was at ease. As questions were asked he thumbed through a book of briefing notes one centimeter thick accessing information divided into topics by coloured cardboard tabs.

Unlike the Peter Costello we see in Question Time, this one had decided not to attack. Without venom he was positive, at times humble, and almost confessional.

He said the election wasn’t just about experience, although as with any job “after you have survived a few challenges you know what to look out for.”

“There is always an unforeseen event coming,” he told us.

“Just when you think you are sailing into clear water, just when we were getting our budget back into balance the Asian financial crisis came along, just as we were getting out of the Asian financial crisis there was US recession in 2000-01, and then you had all that instability coming from the World Trade Centre attack. Look at where we are now, a one in 100 year drought, world oil prices the highest they have ever been, there’s always something coming.”

Wayne Swan was keener on the small picture. He wanted to pay attention to “the kitchen table, not just the boardroom table”.

He would put “a cop on the beat” to keep petrol and grocery prices in line.

But he agreed with the Treasurer about most of the big picture and said so. As a practice run for the big job, he did fine. No-one watching had any doubt that he was across all of the issues and would manage them well. Even the Treasurer seemed to think so.


The Treasurer Peter Costello has ramped up the Coalition’s tax pledge, committing himself to cut the top marginal rate to 40 per cent and to ensure that no-one earning $20,000 pays any tax by July 2012, regardless of the economic conditions prevailing at the time.

Taking on Labor’s Treasury spokesman Wayne Swan in a televised election debate at the National Press Club the Treasurer turned what had previously been only an “aspirational goal” into a firm commitment.

When he launched the tax policy at the start of the campaign he said the five-year goal could only be met if “expected strong economic and fiscal conditions continue”.

Asked toward the end of the debate whether he could guarantee that the five-year goal would be implemented he replied: “I am saying precisely that to you. I wouldn’t have announced it if I didn’t have that intention”.

“Can we deliver it? I would answer the question this way. Did we deliver what we promised in 2003, in 2004, in 2005, in 2006? Yes we did. Not even Wayne Swan would say we didn’t. He would say yes, they announced all of those tax cuts and they delivered them in full”.

“So there it is. We make responsible promises. We wouldn’t make them if they weren’t responsible and we will deliver them”.

The Coalition has so far only costed its lesser promise of cutting the top marginal rate to 42 per cent and lifting the effective tax-free threshold to $16,000 by July 2010.

That promise, costed at $34 billion over three years, has been largely matched by the Labor Party which has promised to adopt all of it but the cut in the top marginal rate which would stay at 45 per cent for the time being.

On several occasions during the debate Mr Swan said that Labor supported the thrust of the Coalition’s tax cuts, describing them as “the government’s adoption of our proposals.”

There was very little heat or criticism during the debate, with both spokesmen agreeing on the importance of tax cuts, education and health.

But when asked by the Canberra Times whether they believed the finding of this week’s Canberra Times poll that 88 per cent of voters in the seat of Eden-Monaro would prefer the $34 billion of promised tax cuts to be directed instead to hospitals and schools, both indicated they did not.

Labor’s Wayne Swan said he thought people wanted both tax cuts and spending on hospitals and schools. When asked by the Press Club Chairman Ken Randall to answer the question with a yes or no, he replied that Labor would do both.

Mr Costello replied by saying that in his experience people wanted the government to be careful with their money and wanted assistance in their household pockets.

The spokesmen agreed as well about the importance of keeping Australia’s budget surplus at one per cent of GDP. Neither accepted the proposition that it should be higher during the current economic boom to allow the government to save for a downturn.

When each was asked to give a guarantee that they would not challenge their leader for the next 18 months should they win office, Wayne Swan readily agreed, saying he wanted to serve as Kevin Rudd’s Treasurer for the next 10 years. Mr Costello refused to give such a commitment during the lunchtime debate, although he did later in the afternoon when opening the campaign office of the member for Eden-Monaro Garry Nairn in Queanbeyan.