With some clever work at his campaign launch, Kevin Rudd has seized the title of the Prince of Parsimony, leaving John Howard with the mantle of the Spendthrift Statesman. The Coalition is calling for a recount, claiming THEY’RE the cheapskates. Who’s right?

The finely calibrated Crikey Spend-o-meter, which is definitely NOT composed merely of a bored Canberran and an Excel spreadsheet, shows that as of last night, the Government had, since the start of the campaign, committed to just over $65b worth of promises, while Labor, since February this year, has managed $57.6b.

The Government’s figure of course doesn’t include commitments signed off before the calling of the election. They’d run to hundreds of millions, but that’s the benefit of incumbency. Deal.

There’ll be more spending to come from the parties, but, even without the Reserve Bank wincing theatrically at every promise, we’re now near the bottom of the pork barrel and can start to make sense of the mountains of tasty porcine product that now dot the landscape.

A breakdown of the figures shows some surprises. Rudd might be the Education Revolutionary but, courtesy of the school

tax rebate, the Government is promising $3b more on education than Labor, $8.3b to $5.1b.  But Labor has outspent the Government more than two to one in Western Australia, offering more than $1b in a state where it faces the greatest chance of losing seats, compared to the Government’s $400m.

In Queensland, the reverse applies, with the Government more than doubling the ALP’s $2.4b. In NSW, too, the Government is outspending the Opposition significantly, $6.3b to $1.7b.

But if the Government wonders why it is facing losing all five Tasmanian seats, it might note that to date it has promised a lousy $18m to the Appendage State, while Labor has offered about $480m.

The big ticket item after tax on the Coalition side is roads – more than $16b worth of them. Mark Vaile has spent money like he’s high on exhaust fumes, emptying his giant slush fund Auslink program to buy votes. In comparison, Labor looks down right miserly with a mere $6.9b, but a fair whack of that is in WA. The Nationals don’t have a strong presence

In that state – which probably accounts for why the west has fallen off their road spending radar.

Predictably, in health, the ALP is way ahead, offering $3.9B while Tony Abbott, presumably too busy getting apology lessons from Morris Iemma, has only been able to muster $914m. Ditto the environment, where the Opposition is offering $1.2B to renewable energy companies, while the Government is offering a trifling $75m, plus its climate change fund off in the never-never of 2010. Then again, Mark Vaile denies the existence of global warming, so why would you bother spending money on it?

And who are the biggest sports nuts? The ALP has a big lead heading into the final quarter – $36.3m to $16.3m. Still, it’s finals football, so time enough if good enough for the Coalition.

No matter who wins, more bureaucrats will be needed. Both sides have tended to assume the cost of running their new programs will be absorbed within existing departmental resources, and the Department of Finance, charged with costing more than 150 commitments in the space of weeks, has in many cases followed suit. But it’s hard to see how whole new hundred-million dollar programs, or new advisory bodies, will run themselves. Perhaps the Government is planning more Regional Partnerships-style programs where Ministers simply spend money how they like.

If not, a back-of-the-envelope calculation, including possible reductions, suggests the Coalition would need another 70 bureaucrats to man the pork barrels, while Labor, which is threatening to send in the razor gangs if elected, would need maybe 90.

For a public service already understaffed and struggling to recruit in the current labour market, life won’t get any easier.

All the nervous economists out there should bear this in mind. Little of this funding will actually be spent in 2007-08, regardless of the outcome. In fact, given the election timing, the Public Service will struggle to get the 2008-09 Budget up in May, let alone pump billions into the economy before then.

And many of the commitments, especially relating to roads and schools, are over five, six or even ten years.

That’s the good thing about political promises – they always sound MUCH bigger than they really are.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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