Stupid, stupid, stupid.

This year’s election seems to be shaping up as a battle of the incompetent. Just when Kevin Rudd and his team seemed to be finding ways to trip up over absolutely everything in their path, along comes Tony Abbott, demanding that everyone look at him while he blows his own foot off. Then, yesterday, Joe Hockey found three ways to distract everyone from the message about economic credibility he was trying to get across.

That one of those distractions was intended to actually prevent everyone from being distracted made the whole business comical. It was ridiculously unnecessary and meant what was a solid and interesting Budget reply got lost due to journalistic noses being out of joint.

Not providing the Coalition’s savings to journalists made sense given Hockey wanted everyone to focus on his economic reform message. But it was never going to pass muster with the assembled hacks, especially given Abbott had made such a point last week of saying Hockey would be delivering the detail in his speech. The ‘pass the parcel’ comments began circulating on Twitter almost as soon as it became apparent Hockey had flicked the task of handing out the cuts to Andrew Robb.

Annoying newspaper journalists is one thing — they can only vent their frustrations by text. When I saw Seven’s Mark Riley shaking his head and Paul Bongiorno rising to ask whether this was exactly the sort of spinning of which the Coalition accused Labor, it became clear the evening news bulletins were going to be as much as about Hockey’s clumsy media management as about his Budget reply. Riley’s confrontation with Hockey outside the Press Club, where Hockey turned and walked off, looked very bad.

So unnecessary. So Hockey avoided a few questions about cuts in the Q&A. He traded it for barbs like he got from Andrew Probyn.

Still, it’s not exactly up there with admitting you make stuff up when you feel the heat from journalists, or back-flipping on the great moral challenge of our time. It was a silly mistake, one Hockey acknowledged last night, but we should all move on.

Hockey’s next error was to allow himself to be lured into speculating about Treasury secretary Ken Henry’s future. Henry’s current appointment expires in April next year. Hockey refused to back him yesterday, giving a clear indication Henry would be out the door in the early months of a Coalition government.

Despite Henry being appointed and reappointed by Howard and Costello, the Coalition hates him with a passion. Only Martin Parkinson at Climate Change gets them angrier. It’s not so much for what he’s done — apart from embarrass Coalition senators at Estimates — as for the fact the prime minister and treasurer have clung tightly to him, making him their shield for so much of their response to the GFC. Forgotten is that Henry was their man for years; now he’s Labor’s and he’s for it if they get the chance.

It’s a tribal thing. This is the mob that was so determined to target the public service heads they perceived to be their enemies in 1996 they fired one by mistake and didn’t care. But there was no need for Hockey to give the game away this early. It would have been perfectly justifiable to say that speculating about what would happen several months into a Coalition government was a bit presumptuous.

Then there was the silly effort to puff up the savings figure by throwing in everything regardless of whether it was an actual saving or not. Hockey was speaking of a $46.7 billion figure in his speech. Sounded impressive, until we got the figures afterward and saw that they’d included not proceeding with the NBN and selling Medibank (this will be the third election the Coalition has gone to promising to sell Medibank) — that’s $22 billion — and they’d included $11 billion of “savings” from RSPT-related expenditures like the 2% corporate tax cut.

Worse, a number of savings had been asterisked to indicate the savings would offset the Coalition’s own, similar programs, which might actually involve greater expenditure.

The actual savings figure, in the end, was around $5 billion. Robb coped a hammering from journalists over the numbers in his press conference, which at times threatened to get out of control. But Robb managed to hang on, repeatedly coming back to his line about the need to end Labor’s profligacy. Out of the Coalition’s economic leadership trio, Robb’s the bloke you’d want on your side when things get ugly.

And it could have been much worse. If Barnaby Joyce had been giving that press conference, it would have turned into a circus.

Peter Fray

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