There was a time when federal budgets revealed how much a government was going to spend in a current financial year until a Labor Government made it next financial year by moving budget night from August back to May.

Then we got the further change of budgets not just estimating spending for the next year but forecasting expenditure several years into the future. New programs were not just $50 million a year but $250 million over five years which was good for headlines and 15 second grabs on television. And now the fiscal expansion has reached a new level.

In some previews of tomorrow night’s budget, some things are being multiplied by 10 as the Coalition Government tries to establish its credentials as an economic magician capable of combining a great big budget surplus with tax cuts and a variety of new billion dollar spending programs.

A good example of a government making its plans sound as big and bold as possible was, as The Australian reported, “a bid to remove obstacles to productivity under a $352 million program” that will create 20 “productivity centres” around the country.

This “Global Integration” program was part of a $1.4 billion, 10-year industry plan designed to boost productivity and improve supply chains, the paper reported the Prime Minister, John Howard, as announcing.

Michelle Grattan in her preview in The Age this morning hasn’t caught up with the 10 year projections yet but obviously thought a federal budget pouring $375 million over four years into fixing the teeth of those with chronic illnesses read better than a government promising to spend $90 million a year.

Steve Lewis in The Australian chose not to worry about the time period at all but predicted that the national fangs would get $350 million spent on them. Steve was not so coy about putting a five year time span on a $19 billion five year infrastructure spending program but noted that the five years would not begin until the expiration of a current scheme in 2009. I supposed few people will remember this fearless prediction if and when it comes to pass but it must have delighted treasurer Peter Costello’s spin doctors.

And surely the Sydney Daily Telegraph could have done a little better with its report that “in a move that will cost $1.4 billion over five years, Mr Costello will deliver a child care rebate would be delivered to the 700,000 families who use childcare 12 months after they pay their childcare bills.”

A proper beat up would surely have given us nearly $6 billion over 20 years.