Despite both Labor and the Liberals promising to outdo each other on the fiscal conservative criteria, The Canberra Times election "spendometer" in late September had the Labor Party's total spend at $486 million with the Liberals running a close second at $396 million.
Since then, both parties have made a rash of new promises.
Using the parties' own costings, and excluding promises both double-counted and already budgeted for, I estimate that Labor has committed to spend a whopping $1.06 billion compared with the Liberals $619 million. For every $1 that the Libs promise to spend, Labor commits $1.70, such is the power of incumbency.
The adjusted spending total was calculated as of last weekend, and does not take into account any extra promises made during this last week of campaigning. In part, the party spending differences reflect Jon Stanhope's preparedness to go into spending overdrive, while Zed Seselja may be hoping that a flurry of late promises will get him over the finish line.
The spending tally removes the tricky double-counting of spending promises that appears in the parties' policy statements, and does its level best to account for sloppy policy work by the parties. For example, Labor's water policy states that a re-elected ACT Labor government will provide $600,000 million to support water audits and water management plans by businesses. So, is that $600 billion in spending or just $600,000?
Even so, the breadth of government spending across the ACT economy is extraordinary. Like confetti floating randomly in the breeze, Labor has splashed money everywhere over the forward estimates, from public hospitals and health care ($1 billion, but with $300 million already spent), ACTION buses ($10 million) and maternity leave ($7 million), right through to a $60,000 grant to the Council for the Ageing. If re-elected, Labor will ensure that no Canberran is left untouched by the churn of the state.
The Liberals, on the other hand, are hoping to nab the votes of sporty types, with new promises for sport venues capital funding ($24 million), recurrent grants for sporting activities ($6 million) and improvements to the bicycle network ($7 million). The Canberra Liberals may be thinking that the sporty types could be youthful types, too, with their $122 million stamp-duty exemption for first-home buyers.
It must be worrying for Stanhope that his spending promises are failing to resonate with voters. With the latest polling showing Stanhope's approval ratings falling by 20 percentage points since the 2004 poll, and with predictions of a return to minority government, Labor must be wondering how much more tax churn it would take to get the electorate to think more favourably of it.
Perhaps the key issue is that Canberrans realise that Stanhope is merely trying to bribe their vote with their own money. For example, health issues are prominent in the minds of electors. However, public hospital elective surgery waiting times have been going up, and 41 per cent of emergency department patients aged 75 and overare waiting more than eight hours for admission after treatment.
Perhaps Labor's soft polling reflects the fact that Canberrans know about the underwhelming performance on government service delivery, and don't like getting such a poor return from their own money.
Debates in previous ACT elections were conditioned by a national economic powerhouse that flooded the ACT Treasury coffers with money. This time round it's a slightly different story. As the pre-election budget update shows, an economic slowdown is almost certain to hit the budget bottom line through reduced tax revenues and earnings on the Government's superannuation investments.
With the economy projected to grow at below its long-run average, Canberrans would do well to consider the sustainability of the "max-spending" election promises being made before registering their vote.