Dr Bryce Edwards’ NZ Politics Daily Political Roundup: A Conservative Budget for volatile times

Finance Minister Grant Robertson has delivered a Budget that will many asking “Is that all there is?” There is a myriad of initiatives and there is increased spending, but strangely it doesn’t really add up to much at all for those hoping for a more traditional Labour-style Budget.

The headline $350 “Cost of Living Payment” for some lower-income New Zealanders will be well received as at least doing something to ameliorate the impact of inflation. But it won’t go very far, and a Labour Government might be expected to do more for those at the bottom during a crisis.

The lack of other bolder initiatives will also have progressives scratching their heads about what the Government is up to and why they aren’t doing more.

Of particular surprise is the Government’s announcement that the other cost of living package measures, such as the fuel duty reduction and half-price public transport, are soon to end. Instead of being extended or even made permanent, these are only going to be extended by two months. This is a major blow to progressives and environmentalists who assumed it would be either extended indefinitely or transformed into an entirely free public transport package.

Yes, Robertson has found a few million to make the reduced public transport fares permanent for Community Services Cardholders, but this is mild stuff for those looking for a bigger initiative than a targeted fix that won’t really have a huge impact on reducing emissions.

The Government promised that this Budget would be focused on climate change, but there really isn’t anything in this to give much confidence that this Government is serious about tackling the problem. After Monday’s very poorly-received announcement from Climate Minister James Shaw, this will further dent confidence that Jacinda Ardern’s so-called nuclear-free moment in emissions reductions is really going to happen.

The Government has worked hard to try and find some initiatives to make up for the lack of substantial Labour-style initiatives, deciding to announce their response to the Commerce Commission’s supermarket study – with plans to legislate to stop the current duopoly from stifling competitors from getting land to build new stores.

This is something of a fake Budget initiative – it’s not about budgetary and fiscal policy, despite the Government putting a price tag of $11m on the change. Although it will be a welcomed regulatory change, which will hopefully lead to lower prices, by including this in the Budget it shows just how desperate Labour was to find some boldness for today’s announcements.

Even when it comes to health spending, there really isn’t too much of interest in this Budget. There’s the extra spending of $11bn, but this is mostly just to make the new health reforms work by paying off the debt of the district health boards that are being disbanded. The Government is choosing to make a virtue of this necessity, but it hardly shows vision and adds any real capacity to hospitals. It is mostly money that has already been spent by health boards after decades of government (National and Labour) underfunding.

Similarly, millions more are being spent on housing, but although this looks like significant new money, it’s really just to keep the current government building programme going.

There are other progressive initiatives around reform of child support benefits, more insulation retrofitting and heating of homes, and improved for dental health funding for those on low incomes. But these are hardly radical or very large.

As a sign of how mild the Budget really is, it’s worth trying to locate any particular initiative that would be totally out of place under a National government. Certainly, it’s not that hard to imagine Bill English or Nicola Willis delivering this Budget. It’s hard to see any one particular Budget spend that a “compassionate conservative” or electorally-minded National government couldn’t have signed itself up to.

Yes, National will find plenty of rhetoric to throw against this – perhaps on levels of debt, spending, or even on the targeted Māori spending in health, but it’d be hard for Christopher Luxon or Nicola Willis to build up much enthusiasm for criticising what’s been announced.

Even the name of the Budget, “A Secure Future”, is a rather National-style and conservative term. It hardly screams “radical”, “leftwing” or “boldness”, but more about “security” which is a traditional term of conservatives.

What’s more, Robertson is selling his fifth Budget with very conservative lines. He starts his Budget speech, for instance, boasting about how the Government has recently won the approval of the IMF and OECD for their economic management, as well as receiving a Triple-A ratings from the global credit agencies.

Robertson’s other big boast is how his government is managing to get debt down and a return to surplus faster than the last National government did following the global financial crisis. Today he talks about taking a “responsible fiscal approach” that keeps a lid on debt. This is hardly socialist stuff.

In fact, Robertson makes a real effort to emphasise how gloomy the world economy is right now. He argues that uncertainty and volatility are huge. Of course, he’s right. And here in New Zealand there is also much despair and pessimism about the financial future.

Robertson will be hoping to hit the right note, electorally, in creating a conservative budget during a time of fear and gloom. Many voters are naturally wanting to see a steady ship, rather than a visionary and bold “adventure”.

Progressives on the left will despair that such a National-lite Budget does little to deal with the big issues of our time, but it probably manages to win over a number of wavering voters who might be thinking of supporting the real party of conservatism. The calculation will be that voters, with little in substance to differentiate between the major parties, will stick with the leadership that saw New Zealand through the gobal pandemic in much better shape than most other countries.

The risk, which has often dogged centre-left governments, is that trying to occupy the same political space as the opposition leads to erosion of core support to protest and non-voting, while the new-found swinging voters are usually very fickle.

Related Posts