Policy pinching may just work
I'm certainly not here to argue National is hell-bent on transforming the economy with some sort of innovative, deep thinking, thought-provoking and wow-factor Budget. I'd be laughed out of town.
So I want to be blunt about this: Bill English's 2014 offering is a crafty, clever – and cynical – pitch for your vote. And it'll probably work.
John Key and English promised you they wouldn't deliver an election year Budget full of lollies. We got the opposite – a delayed sugar hit that kicks in next year.
If you're not impressed with free doctors' visits and paid parental leave then they'll give you tax cuts if you re-elect them – but only then.
If this week's Budget was some sort of school exam, English and Key would be sent to the headmaster's office – guilty of a clear case of plagiarism.
Put simply, National stole two big ideas for this Budget.
They ripped off Labour's paid parental leave extension and nabbed Winston Peters' free doctors visits for children aged up to 13. No wonder the Opposition is fuming. It leaves Labour home alone and with no invite to the party. Key and English are shameless on this policy-pinching stuff – but if it gets them a third term, then so be it.
If National is vulnerable, it's in housing. They turned up to pass-the-parcel with a lame gift from the $2 Shop. They really shouldn't have bothered. It actually draws attention to what National hasn't done. First-home buyers can rightly feel miffed. National allowed speculation to take hold that something was happening in housing and it's not.
All it's promising those building new homes is cheaper nails and plasterboard by removing import tariffs, saving $3500 on a newly constructed house. All up a $400,000 new-build house will now cost $396,500. Big deal.
Thanks. A. Million. Actually that's what it will cost you in Auckland – they call it a do-up.
In fact it was Key who threw the spanner into the Budget printer on Wednesday. Just as English was ruling out tax cuts as some kind of mindless speculation from a bunch of angle-hungry press hacks – the PM, just metres away was chipping away saying, "sure, why not, we can't rule them out".
And that changed the game this week. By Thursday English was on-board – converted and singing the praises of his visionary prime minister and boss.
It's just another area where Labour simply can't compete.
Labour will invest in the economy and bring serious structural change to the power, housing, insurance, tax and monetary policy areas – whether any of that works is anybody's guess.
Whereas National has a $3.5 billion surplus to spend in two years' time. And it wants to keep it all simple. In National's world it's an easy decision – and they call them tax cuts. It won't be much more than $20 a week – anything more than that is too expensive.
But there's your choice. It might have been English's day on Thursday – but Key set the tone for the months ahead. We've finally got a series of surplus assumptions from a bunch of economists, and Key wants to give it all back to you – as long as you vote for him, of course.
I stil can't really work out how you get a $372m surplus when you've borrowed $55b in just over five years to keep the country ticking over. But without the massive borrowing National would have had to make massive spending cuts. So how much is that extra debt now costing us? English spelled it out. It's costing the Government an extra $3.6b a year just to service that extra debt. That's more than we spend on the entire police budget and the early childhood education sector in a year.
So there is still such a thing as a free lunch. Well, there certainly was for all of us hacks at the budget lock-up on Thursday – including Jordan Williams. He's the head of the slash-and-burn NZ Taxpayers Association – which blows the whistle on politicians it thinks is wasting your money. So imagine how surprised I was when I saw him pile his plate high with free taxpayer-funded sandwiches, rolls, sausage rolls and mini quiches – twice! Jordan has since presented Treasury with a cheque to cover the cost - and used the opportunity to point out the only tax cut in the Budget was to cheque duty.