Just occasionally you wonder if Labor’s complaint that it is held to a different standard to the Coalition on economic management is correct.

In March, we were treated to some confected media outrage about pensions bonus stimulus payments going to Australian pensioners living overseas. The Coalition was happy to take up the issue as part of its effort to argue the “cash splash” hadn’t been effective in supporting demand (a line, speaking of which, that seems to have been abandoned for now by the Opposition).

“If the Government was fair dinkum about stimulating the Australian economy as opposed to the New Zealand economy or the Cyprus economy or the Greek economy, they would have done it differently,” opined Tony Abbott, making a rare contribution in his own portfolio. The Opposition also wanted to know if the estates of pensioners who had recently died would receive the bonus payment. And last week we had the “grateful dead” claim about $40-odd million on bonus payments being paid to deceased estates.

“The fact that 16,000 dead people and 27,000 (expats) are receiving $900 cheques from the Government to stimulate the Australian economy says everything about their financial incompetence and their disregard for taxpayers’ money,” Joe Hockey piously declared.

Yesterday, the increasingly banal Insiders discussed the issue in depth.

The actual number of expatriate pensioners receiving stimulus payments appears to be the subject of some confusion. Back in March it was apparently 69,000, not 27,000. FAHCSIA told a Senate inquiry in 2004 that in October 2003 there were 45,745 foreign residents receiving the aged pension. Let’s assume it’s on the high side, not the low.

But rewind to the 2006 budget. As part of its by-then well-established strategy of vote-buying on a massive scale, the Howard Government handed out a $102 bonus payments to pensioners to help them make ends meet. Everyone eligible on Budget Night got one.

In FAHCSIA’s 2005-06 annual report, the Department declared mission accomplished:

Number of eligible income support customers paid the One-off Payment: 1,913,490 (which includes 80,714 customers receiving income support payment administered by DEWR).

There were also, FAHCSIA said, another 300,000 self-funded retirees too wealthy to get the pension who also got the handout via the seniors health care card.

No one complained about 300,000 seniors too wealthy to get the pension receiving nearly $31m in bonus payments.

The payments didn’t go to expatriate pensioners, except those who had only left Australia in the preceding three months. That would only have been a few thousand, so let’s forget them. But it did go to the approximately 39,000 foreign pensioners resident in Australia who receive pension payments from the Australian Government under reciprocal deals with foreign governments. That was about $4m given to foreigners living here, many of whom never paid a cent in taxes in Australia.

And then there’s the matter of the approximately 10,000 people aged over 65 who, according to ABS statistics, die in June each year. The bonus payments were made in June, based on whoever was eligible on Budget Night in early May. Assuming at least a month between budget night and delivery, that was over $1,000,000 sent to deceased estates.

Any headlines about “grateful dead”? Any claims of financial incompetence? Hilarious cartoons of skeletal hands clutching some cash? Nope.

Go forward a year. It’s May 2007. It is becoming painfully clear to the Howard Government that Kevin Rudd has its number. In a last, desperate effort to bribe their way to another election win, John Howard and Peter Costello produce the most profligate, irresponsible budget of their 11-year period in Government. Amongst the largesse is another handout to pensioners. This time it’s $500.

This time FAHCSIA curiously didn’t break out the number of self-funded retirees who got the handout. Using the same number as the year before, that was $150m. $21m went to foreigners living in Australia and $5m to deceased estates.

Stimulus payments to deceased estates will still stimulate the economy. But pension bonuses intended to make life a little easier for senior citizens doing it tough are, in the case of deceased pensioners, just a tad too little, too late.

No one said boo. Well, OK, I can’t find anyone who did. I’m happy to be corrected. I’m not prepared to click on all 2 million Google results just to be entirely sure. If anyone did, they get to have the privilege of criticising this government for the delivery of its stimulus payments. As for everyone else – a bit of consistency please.