THE $4 billion public dental package announced yesterday takes new spending and cost blowouts revealed in the past three weeks to more than $8 billion, but much of the money is spread over future years and the government insists its promise to return the budget to surplus remains intact.
As well as billions extra needed to meet the costs of asylum seeker policies and an impending education announcement, the dental scheme was seized on by the opposition as indicative of a government that is spending wildly to clear the decks for an early election.
''This is a government which knows that it is not going to deliver the promised surplus and this is a government which will do almost anything to avoid the humiliation of having to admit that it can't be trusted with public money,'' the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, said.
But the government rejected the claims, with insiders scoffing at the idea of an early election with the poll numbers so dire.
The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, heralded the dental scheme as a budget saving.
It would provide dental care for low and middle-income families at a cost of $4 billion over six years from July 1, 2014.
Until then, the costs will be covered by $515 million for dental care announced and costed in the May budget.
The scheme will replace a Howard government chronic dental health scheme which was costing almost $1 billion a year.
''The announcement today is about a large saving. That is through the closure of a scheme designed by the former government, by the Howard government,'' Ms Gillard said.
The Health Minister, Tanya Plibersek, said: ''Our commitment to being in surplus is absolutely rock solid.''
Of more immediate pressure on the budget are the asylum seeker costs.
The May budget forecast a $1.5 billion surplus this financial year, $2 billion , next year, $5.3 billion in 2014-15 and $7.5 billion in 2015-16.
Delivering a surplus this financial year is politically critical because the true figure will be known when Australians go to the polls about this time next year.
In recent days, the costs over four years of asylum seekers policies include $1.3 billion for increasing the annual refugee intake to 20,000, $2.3 billion to build and operate detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island, a $650 million blowout in staffing crowded detention centres in Australia.
Additionally, analyists forecast the mining tax, estimated to make $3 billion this financial year, could fall short by as much as $1 billion because of falling commodity prices.
The Treasurer, Wayne Swan, remained optimistic yesterday, saying a fall in spot prices for iron ore and coal, the minerals to which the mining tax applies, did not mean a long-term fall in prices. Senior sources said ministers were being asked to scour their portfolios again for savings to help cope with the new spending and maintain the surplus.
As early as next week, the government is expected to unveil its response to the Gonski report on school funding. This could involve an increase in the federal government's contribution of $3 billion a year.
But like the dental scheme, whatever money is pledged, will not start being spent until July 1, 2014, well after the next election and the promised return to surplus.