Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Swan for content, Hockey for style - Debate 2010

FORGET the leaders' debate: yesterday's Treasurers' debate was far better. It was articulate and feisty, with the ABC's Chris Ullmann as chairman doing a great job of getting them to engage and make sparks fly.

My initial verdict was that it was pretty even. But after the bout, Wayne Swan threw a low blow by trying to verbal Tony Abbott, quoting comments from a radio interview without the qualification Abbott put on them. On that basis, I'd give it to Joe Hockey.

Swan had the edge on content, but Hockey won the points on style. Wayne was once a boyo, but these days he's the class swot: controlled, unfunny, relentlessly on message. Joe was trying to look as serious and Treasurer-like as he could, but he's really the fun kid of the class: affable, full of laughs, with what Dr Johnson once called "a bottom of good sense".

They had a good debate. Both made strong cases: Swan on Labor's term in office, Hockey on the Coalition's agenda.

Both also swung several fouls, and feigned ignorance on some key inconvenient issues, such as the role of tax breaks in making home ownership unaffordable for the young.

Swan won clearly on Labor's record. He repeatedly pulled Hockey up for pretending that the debt and deficits were due to Labor being in power, when clearly they were the result of a global recession.

Hockey ultimately conceded that had the Coalition been in office during the crisis, it too would have had to run deficits, although, he said, smaller than Labor's. Glad we got that clear.

Treasury figures suggest that in the four years of deficits, the revenue collapse and Labor's stimulus decisions contributed equally to the blowout. But then, without those handouts propping up retailing, construction, the finance sector and car manufacturing, the collapse of revenue and jobs would have been much worse.

Hockey won clearly in spelling out an Abbott government's economic agenda. Ironically, when Swan keeps attacking the Coalition for not having an economic agenda, his only plan for tax reform was to keep cutting company tax.

But Swan scored again by highlighting the Coalition's failure to submit more than a tiny fraction of its proposed new spending and tax cuts for costing by the Finance Department and Treasury.

Hockey insisted they would be submitted before the deadline, but as of last night the Coalition had still submitted just $288 million of almost $40 billion in new spending and tax cuts for costing.

On the Coalition's own estimate, he said, it now had net savings of $2.8 billion over four years. That's a cut of 0.2 per cent in the $1.4 trillion of planned spending in that time. Wow.

But Joe, if you're that confident of your figures, would you mind letting the boys at Treasury and Finance look at them? Just for a week or so? That might reassure the rest of us.

But Swan fouled out when he accused the Coalition of opposing all the stimulus spending. Not so, said Hockey: we supported the first tranche, and would have passed the second if you'd negotiated with us to make it smaller.

"We've never disputed the stimulus," he said. "What we've disputed is how much you spent, and the way you spent it." But then Hockey too fouled out, claiming repeatedly that the stimulus had pushed up interest rates and squeezed out business borrowers. That is true only if you concede that the stimulus is responsible for Australia's relatively good economic growth because as Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens keeps explaining, that's what drives up interest rates. The Libs can't have it both ways.

Both fighters came out with their heads high.