Last week the Turnbull government tried, with variable results, to drag the focus of the federal election campaign to asylum seekers.
It’s an issue that’s seen by voters to be one of their strengths.
This week, the third in an eight-week campaign, the government endeavoured to bring its other strength into the frame, pointing out that the Labor opposition would not only be irresponsible with taxpayers’ money, but couldn’t even count.
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Opposition leader Bill Shorten didn’t help Labor’s cause when he was caught on camera making another expensive promise and then adding the defiant quip: “You can put that on the spend-o-meter. That’s another million.”
PM Turnbull opened the attack this week with an unoriginal but still evocative new moniker for his opponent, calling the Labor leader “Billion Dollar Bill”.
The government’s fiscal twins followed closely behind, with Treasurer Scott Morrison and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann holding a press conference to declare – shock, horror – that Labor had a super massive black hole in its budget.
The assumptions that underpinned the calculation of that fiscal hole were flexible, to say the least, but the government hoped this would draw out Labor to challenge the numbers.
This would then allow the government to challenge Labor in turn to divulge the costing of policies that had not yet been announced.
However it soon transpired that at least journalists in the Canberra press gallery know their numbers, and were less than impressed with the manoeuvre.
Under sustained media questioning, the dynamic duo were forced to meekly protest that yes, they may have included some dodgy assumptions in the calculations but, even if the size of the black hole was half the claimed size, Labor were still totally unfit to run a government.
A car crash of an interview
Fate stepped in at this point, perhaps in an effort to rescue the two struggling government ministers from further embarrassment.
One of the opposition’s even more hapless MPs, David Feeney, agreed to be subjected to the forensic questioning of David Speers from Sky News, and the results were far from pretty.
You might recall Mr Feeney had a bad week last week when it emerged that he’d forgotten to declare a $2.3 million, negatively geared home on the public register where all politicians list their investments and anything else that might be considered a conflict of interest.
He was ready for questions about this oversight in the interview, but when the journalist pressed the shadow cabinet minister to confirm whether Labor would keep the schoolkids bonus or “bank” the savings, Mr Feeney clumsily denied any knowledge of Labor’s yet-to-be declared position.
He similarly flubbed questions on Labor’s intentions to restore or keep the Coalition’s changes to pensions and family payments.
The potential damage to Labor’s reputation was so bad that it quickly fessed up to having already decided to scrap the schoolkids bonus, even after protesting loudly when the government teamed up with Clive Palmer to do so.
The Opposition also confirmed that it would not restore the $1.2 billion cut by the Coalition from funding for aged care services.
In both instances, Labor claimed these backdowns were necessary because of the poor state in which the Coalition has left the budget.
The promise Chris Bowen won’t be allowed to forget
This excuse makes the promise made by Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen a couple of weeks ago to the national press club look shaky.
Mr Bowen assured journalists at the time that he would not use the mini budget that he promised to bring down within three months of Labor winning government to justify the need to break any election promises once he gets a good look at the treasury books.
He won’t be allowed to forget that promise.
This week ended with Mr Bowen debating Mr Morrison at the National Press Club. The Shadow Treasurer claimed his government counterpart only had a slogan not a real plan to fix the economy.
Mr Morrison countered that just because the opposition had their policies costed, this did not mean they could afford or fund them.
In reality, either man would do a commendable job as Australia’s next Treasurer, but at this point neither has engendered much trust among voters.
Accordingly, both will be judged by the perceived economic competence of their respective parties.
Who won the week?
Judging by the week’s events, that puts the Coalition in the lead – at least for now.
There are five more weeks in which the lead could change a few more times before voters are compelled to make a final decision.
Paula Matthewson was media adviser to John Howard in the early 1990s and then worked for almost 25 years in communications, political and industry advocacy roles. She is now a freelance writer and communication strategist. Paula has been tweeting and blogging about politics, the media and social media since 2009 under the pen name @Drag0nista.
You can read more of her columns here.