There's no fiscal black hole, just an incredibly tight squeeze. Can we move on now? video

Steven Joyce has adopted his tried formula from 2011 and 2014 - accuse Labour of botching its figures.

Steven Joyce has adopted his tried formula from 2011 and 2014 - accuse Labour of botching its figures.

OPINION: July 2011: Steven Joyce attacks Labour's fiscal plan, saying it would leave a huge hole over the next 15 years and add $18.4 billion to debt.

August 2014: Steven Joyce claims reckless Labour spending of almost $18b.

Let's just say that even before this week National campaign manager and finance spokesman Steven Joyce has form.

Labour finance spokesman Grant Robertson won almost universal support for his view there was no "fiscal hole" in his plan.

Labour finance spokesman Grant Robertson won almost universal support for his view there was no "fiscal hole" in his plan.

By comparison with his attempts in 2011 and 2014 the "hole" he claimed to have found in Labour's 2017 plan – $11.7b – was relatively small.

READ MORE: War of numbers descends into farce

His motivation is as clear as crystal: feed the view Labour is incompetent and that National is the only trusted steward of the nation's books.

But it was wrong, as numerous commentators and economists across the spectrum have concluded.

Whether that will backfire on him, or simply be mud from the campaign trail that sticks to Labour, remains to be seen. But he is surprisingly short of champions, beyond his own party.

His principal "error" was to assume that the amount left over for new initiatives at the end of each year, portrayed in Labour's Fiscal Plan, was cumulative.


From leaders resigning, to scandals and bizarre jabs, the 2017 election campaign has been one for the books.

So when Labour said it had $913m at the end of the 2017/18 year, $835m at the end of 2018/19 and $879m at the end of 2019/20 and so on, he pushed the extra spending on into subsequent years and added them together.

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So $913m in the first year became $1.7b in the second, $2.6b in the third and so on.

To Labour if it spent the $913m available in year one that was it. No more spending and a total extra spending of about $2.6b over three years.

To Joyce's mind it was more than $5b extra over three years.

Now, on the basis of conversations I have had, I'm in no doubt Joyce and his team either thought they were right, or ended up seeing what they wanted to see. But they were not intentionally telling porkies from the start.

And it was not unreasonable to assume that since Labour labelled the Budget line "operating allowances" that it had the same meaning – and the same cumulative effect – as the identical term in Treasury documents.

But in the light of the facts – and even though he is isolated, and unable to sway any experts – Joyce has continued to retail that "$11.7b hole".

Now, if, once Labour's accounting practice had become clear, he had dropped that and hammered his other line – that Labour had left itself an incredibly small amount of remaining new spending to navigate the rest of its term – he might have had the financial world nodding in agreement.

Several economists have indeed made that point.

If he had said that given Labour's form, and its need to leave cash aside for potential coalition partners, he did not think they had a hope in hell of achieving that, then that would be a fair political debate.

But by sticking to his $11.7b number, including his provision for debt-servicing costs on imaginary extra debt, he went beyond over-egging his claim. He clearly believes that the "mud sticks" approach is better than the alternative – "partial backdown in the face of the evidence".

Others may have other words for it.

So let's have a look in more detail at just what Labour would have left to spend.

It has already accounted for its big boost to health and education spending – both big-ticket items in any Budget – so they are covered. So are some other promises, including extra police, an affordable housing authority and so on.

It has also incorporated the growth in spending included in the pre-election economic and fiscal update (Prefu).

Those increases already signalled by Treasury in departmental budgets are solid in the books, but not immutable.

But if we assume Labour does not change them, and there is no "reprioritisation", we come back to what Labour has left for any other new initiatives.

As I've already said, it stands at $913m at the end of this financial year. But it is unlikely to spend much, if any, of that this year. And it has plenty of other spending promises to bed in.

So if it waits until 2018/19 to burn off the first dollars then it will have more to roll into subsequent years before the allowance will be exhausted.

According to its plan another $500m would become available in election year, 2020/21.

That is incredibly tight across a three-year cycle, but it is not "zero new spending budgets" as some have argued. Add up the committed extra expenditure – including on health and education – and it is a long way from it.

Ask me if I think Labour, under pressure from support parties and facing unknowable costs and possible economic surprises, will meet its plan without spending more and I would say it was very unlikely. Make that "no".

But that would be true of any government's forecasts, including those prepared by Treasury in May.

Future unfunded wage rises are not such a big deal. A three per cent lift in police wages would cost about $30m a year.

And remember that National has to fund health and education increases, its campaign promises – including as of Monday a second $2b families package – and all the fiscal pressures that Labour will face from within a $1.7b to $1.8b a year new spending allowance.

In truth what we have in Labour's plan is a small unallocated spending pot and a poor, even misleading, choice of words by calling its remaining available cash an "operating allowance".

On National's side we have the tried formula from previous campaigns; a huge over-reach for a political hit and now a doubling-down in the face of a near-unanimous rejection of its claim.

In short, if you accept Labour's plan, it has left itself about $900m a year to spend through to June 2020 on things neither in the Treasury forecasts nor in its already-revealed policies so $2.6b in total. 

That's very tight, but not impossible if you remember that National ran a couple of years of "zero budgets".

But there is no $11.7b hole in its fiscal plan.

Can we move on now?

An earlier version of this column had some inaccurate figures, which have been amended.

Stuff's leaders debate, hosted by political editor Tracy Watkins and Stuff's South Island editor-in-chief Joanna Norris, will be streamed live on September 7 at 6pm.

 - Stuff

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