Whenever the polls showed a ho-hum reaction to one of his Budgets, Michael Cullen used to say that Budgets don't win elections but they can lose them.
It was as much as anything an excuse and an explanation for why the former Labour finance minister would every year revel in promising another ''boring'' Budget.
Of course they were often anything but; there is nothing drab about setting up a bank, introducing a multibillion-dollar Working for Families regime, dishing out dosh to get KiwiSaver under way or shelling out interest free student loans and (eventually) tax cuts.
That's not to say Bill English's latest boring - or in his words ''sensible and considered'' - Budget is an election loser despite the absence of big new initiatives. There is too much water to go under the bridge between now and 2014 to say that, even with the combined Labour-Green vote matching National and ACT in recent polls.
But as a public relations exercise the Budget has been a barely qualified disaster. It is hard to find the good news for the Government since last Thursday.
Yes, the Budget ticked the box marked ''surplus in 2014-15''. But at just $197 million, it is vulnerable to the smallest movement in either the domestic or international outlook. It may already be history, given the deterioration since the economic and fiscal forecasts were finalised. The future provision for new spending of $800m rising to $1.2b will be in the front line for cuts if the Government opts to defend that slim surplus.
There was barely a commentator who thought the forecasts underpinning the numbers would be achieved, especially the return to 3.4 per cent growth by March 2014. For a Budget promising to get on top of debt and reduce the country's vulnerability it made precious little difference to the net debt track. It still tops $70b by 2016 and the current account deficit is seen at $17b in the same year.
But the real problems for the Government have come in the symbolic - and in many cases peripheral - decisions in the Budget. They all raise serious doubts about the quality of the Government's political antenna heading into the guts of its second term.
How did anyone think it was a good idea, in a Budget heavy on user-pays and new ways to increase revenues, to frisk paper boys, the disabled, the sick, and the elderly in longterm residential care? Any one of them would have provided the same odium as Dr Cullen's ''chewing gum'' or ''block of cheese'' tax cuts.
Taken together they just look petty. And they bring in so little coin.
The extra cash from prescriptions is worth about $40m a year, the paper round - or ''active income'' - tax rebate about $14m and axing tax breaks on home help and income under $9880 another $21m.
Dumping the $10,000 a year adjustment to the asset testing threshold for people in long-stay care, in favour of inflation adjustments, saves a paltry $16.4m by 2016.
That's a mountain of political heartache for less than $90m in a $70b Budget.
It seems Inland Revenue thought scrapping the housekeeping and ''nanny tax'' had greater potential for a backlash than the paper round tax, especially where it hit the disabled.
But either way, IRD believed the tax changes would tidy up the system, remove anomalies and have little impact on relatively few people. In background papers the department notes the tax breaks are ''a driver of peak-period contacts'' at IRD. Dumping them would free up resources elsewhere.
Due to the need for Budget secrecy, and the short timeframes involved, the normal consultation process did not go ahead. ''Treasury and Inland Revenue were the only agencies involved in developing the proposals and carrying out the analysis,'' it said.
The upshot may have been IRD's wise and considered view, but it is always a warning sign for any government when the purity of systems outweighs consideration of the public's reaction.
That is seen in spades in the most damaging Budget announcement of them all; the move to scrap some teaching positions in the belief that extra money would be better spent on improving teacher quality.
For a Government fixated on tradeoffs it may make sense. The same logic was used to justify the increase in prescription charges to pay for more cancer nurses.
But it begs voters to ask why they cannot have both. Why not keep more, and have better teachers, instead of, say, a few extra kilometres of road each year?
Moreover, class sizes are a touchstone for all parents. There may be many ways to improve the education of their kids but few will see bigger classes as one of them.
Even this week's partial U-turn by Education Minister Hekia Parata and John Key - in the guise of providing ''certainty'' - will not staunch the bleeding.
For Labour and the Greens, it is the political gift that keeps giving.
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