National Party Leader and Deputy Prime Minister Mark Vaile was at the National Press Club this afternoon drawing attention to an unusual feature of this election campaign. For once the debate was not about where the money for promises was coming from but how much of the available tax dollars should be spent and how much a government should hold back in enforced savings as a budget surplus. Naturally enough Mr Vaile was suggesting that the $9 billion of spending proposals announced by his Prime Ministerial colleague John Howard on Monday had got the balance right.

An hour later in Brisbane the Labor Leader Kevin Rudd was taking a different line in his version of a policy launch. For Mr Rudd there is virtue in not being profligate and he sounded positively chirpy while proclaiming that his new spending proposals would cost less than a quarter of those of his opponent. The prospect of a Government promising to outspend an Opposition makes this election campaign rare indeed.

The last time I can recall Labor ignoring the hip-pocket nerve in this way was in 1977 when Gough Whitlam – who received perhaps the biggest round of applause at today’s event – opted for getting rid of payroll tax as a way of stimulating job creation to help the unemployed while Malcolm Fraser was promising those already with jobs cuts in their personal income taxes. The outcome was the biggest defeat for Labor in living memory.

Presumably the Labor research boffins have been out and about testing the risks of this latest virtuous strategy on swinging voters but the prospect of dollars in the kick from Coalition policies on child care and subsidies for school expenses will be hard for many people to ignore. I notice that the Labor tactician Bruce Hawker was quickly out spinning on Sky News the claimed fact that Australians knew there was no point if dollars put into their pockets were quickly removed by bankers charging higher interest rates.

For my part I am not so sure. Limiting the cost of promises to $7 billion or so less than the Coalition looks to me like the decision of a Kevin Rudd worried about what he would have to do after winning an election more than a Kevin Rudd concerned about winning that election.

We will know soon enough whether the break from “me tooism” works.

Peter Fray

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