Grattan on Friday: The battle over big and bad numbers

It’s hard to imagine how things could have looked much worse for Labor this week.

Kevin Rudd’s attack on Tony Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme might be working – and how funny is that? – and the undecided voters gave him the debate. But mostly, he seemed to be struggling, jumping all over the place.

His talk of the fast train and relocating Navy ships appeared little more than journeys over the horizon. His claim Abbott had an unsuitable “temperament” to deal with a foreign crisis such as Syria had a touch of desperation (while he himself was very gung ho).

His expressed concern during Wednesday’s Rooty Hill debate about foreigners getting too much Australian land may be a pitch to Bob Katter’s voters but if so he should have explained it to his ministers.

He said yesterday he stuck by his comments, describing himself as a “economic nationalist” but also said “I was simply stating my overall preference which is that we have joint ventures”. This left it unclear whether he had been saying anything significant on Wednesday or nothing at all. Colleagues didn’t seem to have much of a clue what he was talking about in policy terms. Finance minister Penny Wong, ever on message as campaign spokeswoman, found she didn’t have a message to be on.

But other problems paled beside the costings rebuff from top public servants late yesterday. Labor’s hope has been to frighten the electorate about Abbott’s “cut, cut, cut” intentions, which requires discrediting the Coalition’s figures.

So when the opposition produced savings totalling $31.6 billion, the government quickly found a hole, which it said was $10 billion. This is a familiar script in campaigns, although in this one, there is not much evidence the public is taking fright at the scare (Essential polling found people expect whoever wins to produce fresh cuts).

The government relied for its hatchet job on costings it had got done before the election was called. But when the secretaries of Treasury and Finance and the head of the Parliamentary Budget Office issued statements making it clear they hadn’t costed opposition policies (only the government’s version of them) and that a whole lot of things could be different, suddenly Labor not only lost an attack weapon but was heavily on the defensive for tricky behaviour.

With just over as fortnight to go, Rudd optimists say that past elections show the polls can move two or three points in that time (either way). “Are we dead? No”, says one, while admitting, “We’re coughing up a fair bit of blood.”

But the majority feeling on both sides is that Abbott has victory in the bag. Daughter Louise, who works in Switzerland, is returning for election day, no doubt expecting to watch Dad’s triumph.

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