Scene set for next year's election

Last updated 05:00 17/05/2013

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OPINION: After nearly five years reminding us there is no silver bullet, no gain without pain, and no big bang solution, Bill English's milestone fifth Budget ticked all the finance minister's boxes.

It was predictable. It was boring. And there was almost nothing that had not been well signalled in advance. All of which suits the Eeyore-ish Mr English just fine.

The theme National will take to the 2014 election is steady as she goes, stay the course, and don't put everything at risk. So it would hardly do to break out in a rash of silly promises the moment the economy starts coming out of the gloom.

Just to reinforce the message, the fiscal straitjacket won't be loosened in election year either. Just $1 billion will be available for new spending, which might be riches compared with the last few years, but is still tiny in the scheme of things. But at least there was no scrabbling down the back of the sofa for loose change from paperboy taxes, like last year.

The price of "steady as she goes" as your theme song, of course, is that tinkering and caution are the substitute for vision. There has so far been nothing that captures the optimism around National's "brighter future" promise four years ago.

That ratchets up the political risk of failing to deliver the talisman of a return to surplus in next year's Budget. Even yesterday, it came within a whisker of falling short.

But for now the theme remains familiar; money is still tight, and the economy remains finely balanced. The only memorable lines came later at the after-match function - John Key called Labour and the Greens "the devil beast", Labour leader David Shearer called the finance minister "Blackjack" Bill. And NZ First leader Winston Peters reckoned he was tempted to call in the Serious Fraud Office, the numbers were so shonky.

The scene for the next election is set.

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- Fairfax Media

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