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Morrison and Cormann caught out on “black hole” but money still risky ground for Shorten

Scott Morrison and Mathias Cormann launched an assault on Labor’s spending promises. Treasurer's Office

Consider this statement from Treasurer Scott Morrison about the alleged financial “black hole” in Labor’s program. “The worst case scenario is $67 billion. Best case scenario is a $32 billion black hole. Either way Australians will pay more for what Labor is claiming at this election.”

In other words, never mind the accuracy or otherwise of the figures. Just feel the vibe. Hey Big Spender, AKA Bill Shorten.

Morrison’s $35 billion of wriggle room emerged when he and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann were challenged on Tuesday about the detailed figures they released, with great fanfare and much documentation about the “black hole” in the opposition’s spending and budget commitment so far.

“Black holes” are part of the meat and potatoes of election campaigns – and often of the early days of new governments too, though the charter of budget honesty has made them harder at that stage.

Just as with border protection, Labor is usually thought to be vulnerable on its spending plans, so it wasn’t surprising when Morrison and Cormann launched the assault.

In such exercises the figures are almost always dodgy but these were embarrassing. One would have thought that after his bad experience over the GST issue, Morrison in particular would have understood the danger of overreach.

The most egregious example was in the treatment of foreign aid. In their document the ministers said Labor would spend $19.27 billion over the forward estimates, overturning government decisions for huge cuts.

This was based on Shadow Foreign Minister Tanya Plibersek saying in July last year: “We certainly wouldn’t continue with the aid cuts that are scheduled by this government.”

But fiscal reality had to kick in with Labor, and it has. The ministers conveniently ignored what Plibersek committed Labor to at the weekend – about $800 million more than the government for overseas aid during the budget period.

To be some $18 billion out on one item is either grossly careless or blatantly dishonest.

Morrison on ABC’s 7.30 on Tuesday tried a diversionary tactic, suggestion that the Plibersek announcement was just “one element” of Labor’s policy. When he was challenged on this assumption he said if “Labor are saying they agree with 90% of the cuts that we’ve made to foreign aid …they should say that”.

When it was clear he was in a corner, Morrison moved on to another item. A spokesman for Plibersek confirmed that Labor’s aid policy has been fully announced.

The ministers were stupid in their $67 billion exaggeration and ill-prepared when they were inevitably called out by the media.

Labor, however, would be wise not to take total comfort from the ministers’ bad performance.

Shadow Finance Minister Tony Burke said the ministers “thought they could get away with treating the Australian people like fools”.

Well, yes and no. They thought they could get away with tarring Shorten with the big spending brush. Ordinary voters are not going to trawl through the mind-stretching detail. Of necessity, they follow costing arguments in terms of impressions.

Shorten has to be careful on the issue, even when Labor is being grossly and incompetently verballed. It’s risky ground for him in an election where economic management is high on the agenda and Turnbull out-polls Shorten on it.

Shorten didn’t help himself with a barb last week. Speaking at a meeting in Woy Woy he quipped about a modest promise that the national media “can put that on the ‘spend-o-meter’”, an obvious reference to the “spend-o-meter” being run by The Australian. It was a self-indulgent dig that just gave his opponents advertising material.

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