Is that a budget day wildcard hiding up Steven Joyce's sleeve?

Finance Minister Steven Joyce - poised to deliver his first budget

Finance Minister Steven Joyce - poised to deliver his first budget

OPINION: Bill English's pre budget speech to the Wellington Chamber of Commerce was a swanky affair; the national portrait gallery on Wellington's waterfront was bulging with suits, the wait staff side-stepping through the crowds to bring out the wine and the three course menu starting with a salmon entree.

Andrew Little's speech to the Chamber this week was very much more low key.

Guests balanced pastries on napkins during the polite meet and greet before the audience were ushered to a sterile meeting room in the PwC tower on the Terrace where about 100 plastic chairs were lined up in rows to hear Little talk..

Which way now? Will next week's budget take a different direction under Bill English and Steven Joyce?
TOM LEE/FAIRFAX NZ

Which way now? Will next week's budget take a different direction under Bill English and Steven Joyce?

But the contrast wasn't just in the way each occasion was treated.

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When it comes to housing policy, it seems to be either boom or bust.
PETER MEECHAM/FAIRFAX NZ

When it comes to housing policy, it seems to be either boom or bust.

Flanked by key ministers, English used his speech to the Chamber to announce a budget package for vulnerable children. Little offered the business audience nothing new. While he had his finance spokesman Grant Robertson at hand, Little's speech was no more than a hasty rewrite of his key note speech to the Labour congress at the weekend (even the personal anecdotes were recycled).

On Sunday, it got Little a standing ovation from the party faithful. The chamber members were a much tougher crowd. . Maybe little knew that which was why he didn't want to waste his best lines on them.His speech to the Chamber wrapped up with some perfunctory questions on issues including monetary policy and productivity before everyone headed off to the office.

English's speech to the chamber was almost a gala occasion. Little's felt like something done out of polite duty on both sides.

Of course, business audiences are traditionally seen as National friendly; it's in their DNA. But surely even the business sector must be questioning now how much remains of the old left right stereotypes.

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Years ago when John Key was still the rookie Opposition leader he made a faux pas addressing a National party conference by referring to 'the Labour party I will lead".

There were red faces all round. Key had moved the national party back to the political centre so forcefully- "neutralising" issues including student loans, Kiwisaver and Working for families - many had taken to calling his party "labour lite". His gaffe was treated as a freudian slip.

In reality Key was ahead of his colleagues in recognising that for electoral success National had to move to the place most voters occupied; which was to the left of National on economic issues and to the right of Labour on social issues.

National's raids into traditional Labour territory have been increasingly bold and unapologetic. And the business sector hasn't always been good at hiding it's frustration.

At the last election Labour got plaudits from business and others for being bolder than National on fiscal policy, including its plans to raise the pension age, a capital gains tax, and reforming monetary policy.

National's subsequent move on the pension age, and the current debate over a worsening housing crisis show then Labour finance spokesman David Parker was ahead of his time though that is probably cold comfort given that the plaudits didn't translate into votes.

Despite the lukewarm reception, Little and Robertson have put a lot of legwork into countering the business voice as an unofficial Opposition party.

For instance, Labour and the Greens have agreed on a joint set of Budget rules, including a pledge to run surpluses and cap debt.

Anyone in the business sector looking ahead to next week's budget, meanwhile, for signs that Bill English and Steven Joyce are reversing the direction set under Key might have already got their answer.

National's blatant U turn on a state-run house build programme was a shameless plagiarism of Labour's Kiwibuild policy that suggests it's business as usual for the English-led National Party.

Some of the Government's numbers were a sleight of hand. The promise to build 34,000 'affordable" homes in Auckland over the next 10 years ignores that 8300 homes will be demolished to make way for them. 

But the policy still represents a significant shift in National's thinking on Auckland's housing "crisis". 

National's build programme is only 15,000 houses shy of Labour's promise to build 50,000 new homes in Auckland over the next 10 years, a plan that National (and Joyce) previously derided as fanciful and noddy-land stuff.

But political necessity has won out with the election looming and the Reserve Bank poised to drop another bomb shell on first home buyers with the release of a consultation document on debt to income ratios.

The Government needs a debate about debt to income limits like it needs a hole in the head right now given it will be first home buyers again who will feel like they are getting the short end of the stick. Loan to value ratios have already delayed entry into the property market - by years - for many younger voters.

National's modus operandi has been to simultaneously deny there is a crisis while shooting down Labour's proposals, like Little's latest promise to abolish tax breaks for the property investors responsible for squeezing first home buyers out of the market.

But resorting to the Polish shipyard jibes about Labour while offering few solutions itself has been wearing thin as it looks increasingly like the Government that's got its head buried in the sand, not the Opposition.

The business sector will be looking to the budget to provide more than a grab bag of politically expedient policies, like the Government's other big u-turn on immigration.

They might get their wish. The fact that the government has already rolled out some big policies like the Crown building programme rather than wait till budget day suggests Joyce and English still have some tricks up their sleeve - maybe even a wildcard.

 - Stuff

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