It would not be most people’s idea of fun, but Steven Joyce has made it his favourite chore to run a fine-tooth comb over the figures contained in the alternative Budgets which the Labour Party has thrust in front of voters during its current bout of Opposition.
The general elections during that period have witnessed National’s self-appointed fiscal policeman reaping unexpected political dividends for his party by exposing shonky fiscal behaviour on Labour’s part.
Not this time, however. This time Joyce has made himself look a proper fool over something which boils down to little more than a less than enthralling argument over a matter of best practice accountancy.
Like never before during its nine years in power, National needs to land a king-hit on its old rival.
National needs to kill off the Jacinda Ardern-generated momentum which is propelling Labour’s seemingly unstoppable march on the Beehive.
The only king-hit in evidence has been the one Joyce inflicted on himself this week by his claiming to have discovered a “fiscal hole” in Labour’s fiscal plan totalling some $11.7 billion.
Such fiscal plans play a crucial role in election campaigns. They provide a comfort blanket for Opposition parties. The task of such documents is to silence opponents by presenting reliable costings of policies instead of leaving a vacuum for those enemies to fill by fabricating and promulgating untruths to exaggerate the cost of those policies.
The forecasts of tax revenue and government spending in these alternative budgets may be different from those in the official version. But they must add up in a manner which shows the promises of the Opposition party are affordable.
A lot rides on that. The discovery of unfounded spending or other evidence of fiscal fiddling can wreak credibility-eroding havoc on the perpetrator.
Even a minor discrepancy will be ruthlessly exploited by the party in government as reason why its opponent is not competent to run the country.
Back in 2011, Joyce struck pay dirt by uncovering what appeared to be major under-funding of some of Labour’s spending programmes. Labour was immediately forced on the defensive. It took the party days to come clean and sort out what was a major distraction blotting out the party’s core campaign messages in the final week or so of that year’s election.
To allege a discrepancy where there is not one is to place a big question mark over your own competence, however.
That has been a major factor in Joyce’s refusal to back away from his allegation.
He will continue to insist black is white despite his fiscal hole being rubbished as a figment of what will be deemed to be an obviously fevered imagination by just about everyone qualified to pass judgement.
Labour has demanded an apology. It knows it will never get one. But the opportunity to rub the nose of the incumbent Finance Minister in a calamity of his own making does not come along every day — and never in the midst of a closely fought election campaign.
Joyce’s gaffe thus transcends mere blooper status. There is already serious competition when it comes to assessing the biggest blunder on the campaign trail so far — Metiria Turei’s admission of being a benefit cheat and Paula Bennett’s declaration that gang members do not enjoy the same human rights as everyone else being two of the most obvious candidates.
Joyce’s contribution falls well short of Turei’s. But many will catalogue the strange loss of political acumen by someone who is usually floating in that commodity as equally extraordinary given his lofty status as third-ranked Cabinet minister and the person in charge of National’s election campaign planning and strategy.
National’s opponents would be well advised to hold off dancing on his political grave just yet, however.
As Election Day draws ever closer, Joyce is obviously under mega pressure to come up with tactics to halt the Jacinda Juggernaut and arrest his party’s slow, but seeming inexorable, slide in support.
Few politicians are as unflappable and cucumber-cool as Joyce. He is not prone to panicking.
Neither is Bill English. The pair will keep their nerve in the confident belief that voters will ultimately be wanting Ardern to deliver substance rather than merely style.
They have clearly judged that Labour’s shiny new leader is vulnerable on economic management and could make big mistakes in trying to prove otherwise.
To that end, Joyce dropped his claim at a mid-afternoon press conference on Tuesday, ensuring the media covered the assertion but leaving them little time to get to grips with the detail and make a judgement on its veracity.
That tactic was supposed to enable English to corner Ardern in that evening’s head-to-head debate between the Labour and National leaders.
Unfortunately for National, big holes began to appear in Joyce’s claimed fiscal hole with economists and other commentators on the government accounts dismissing his supposition faster and far more emphatically than Joyce bargained on.
It is safe to assume that Grant Robertson was expecting Joyce to mount an assault on Labour’s fiscal plan for which he, as Labour’s finance spokesman, was responsible for preparing.
Going on past elections, you could almost set your watch by it.
With the weight of expert opinion overwhelmingly behind him, Robertson’s rebuttal was accordingly scathing.
Robertson’s flinging of the ball back into Joyce’s court was not part of the latter’s prepared script. And it showed in Joyce’s demeanour.
Regardless, the fiasco will not deter him and English from continuing to circle Ardern like famished sharks.They will be smelling blood in the form of her obvious intention to introduce a capital gains tax if Labour is in a position to do so.
What should be worrying National is her, so far, very canny handling of something which is dynamite with a capital “D”.
If she can defuse a political time-bomb of that magnitude, National might be waiting a very long time for her to stuff things up in any major fashion.
But the current ruling party does not enjoy the luxury of being able to wait for things to go wrong.
As Joyce has demonstrated, desperate times may call for desperate measures.
With little over two weeks to go until polling day, Labour will thus be bracing itself for National to conduct a none too subtle scare offensive on economic policy which will be short on fact and long on painting Labour as the fiscal equivalent of a methamphetamine addict when it comes to wasting money.
In chucking everything it can at Ardern — including the kitchen sink if that helps —National will not give a toss about the criticism that will be hurled in its direction for suddenly going negative.
The party’s riposte will be simple and to the point. If Ardern will not fill in the gaps which, by way of example, riddle Labour’s tax policy, then National will fill them for her.