Treasury mandarins are traditionally the best and the brightest of the Australian public service, but that title, which has rested comfortably at Langton Crescent for so long, sits a little askew after yesterday, when Treasury admitted it had made a hundred million-dollar error in the government’s omnibus budget bill.
That’s the bill made up of savings measures Labor said it would support during the election campaign, designed to pressure the opposition into backing the government. But the “pressure”, such as it was, dissipated in question time when shadow treasurer Chris Bowen asked Treasurer Scott Morrison why there was a $100 million error in the explanatory memorandum of the bill.
And, as hard to believe as it was, he was right — the line for “Student start-up scholarships” was out by $107 million. To add insult to injury, that measure actually began life as a Labor saving in 2013, but Labor opposed it in opposition, and it’s been in limbo ever since, until Labor reversed itself again and said they’d back it.
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Morrison blustered his way through an answer to Bowen, but you can bet an adviser was checking the numbers even as he spoke and then would have been making a “WTF?” call to Treasury. Treasury then issued a statement ‘fessing up — they’d been thrown out by a changed start date.
Explanatory memorandums are usually prepared by the legal area of a department in consultation with Office of Parliamentary Counsel, but the numbers come from the relevant line area — which in turn might have to draw on the line department, in this case the Departments of Social Services and Education. Somewhere along that chain, someone left in a previous total for a measure that wouldn’t start until July 2017.
It’s the sort of error public servants have nightmares about — a howler that sails right through layer after layer without being spotted, and not on some minor bill that no one cares about, but one at the centre of political controversy. EMs are vulnerable to such errors, though, because line areas instinctively regard them as a product of their departmental legal area and tend to assume the lawyers will get it right, so they might not be subject to the same scrutiny as line area documents.
You could argue that Morrison’s office should have checked the numbers, but they should be able to rely on Treasury to get the basics right, especially in an EM, which has legal status as a guide to interpretation of the bill. If Bowen’s office, with a couple of staff, can pick up the error, it should have been spotted somewhere along the way. The Treasurer has every right to be furious at the best and the brightest.
*Full disclosure: this dad joke has been stolen from a senior Labor figure