Felines and finances

As the budget debate was winding down in Parliament yesterday the most popular story on the Stuff website was still "Cat saves boy from dog".

Bill English will hardly be distraught. He knows this is not an election-losing Budget.

It's the first since 2008 to project a surplus. Technically, it is perfectly possible for a Government to be rolled in an election year while economic figures are doing OK. Jenny Shipley managed it while running budget surpluses and with economic growth knocking around 3.5 to 4 per cent.

But the public had emphatically soured on the politics of her administration whereas the Key Government, for all that it has had a wretched couple of weeks, would still need to subside spectacularly to find itself in such straits.

English has found himself in the fairly happy situation of not needing a budget that would quicken any pulses . . . merely keep them steady. This one will surely manage that.

It has $500 million package of family-friendly measures and little enough to scare the horses, although those who argue you would hardly find a loser might, perhaps, be reminded of the lack of emphatic relief for first home buyers.

And not all winners will uniformly be wished well. Can we get a yippee hereabouts for that $375 million interest-free loan to accelerate Auckland transport projects? Thought not. But even there, a loan to those shiftless northerners sticks in the southern craw rather less than another straight handout would.

The only tax cut in this here budget is the scrapping of cheque duty. Cheques? Ask your Dad.

Those hoping for something less quaint but more substantial will have to wait their patience a while longer. Prime Minister John Key says this would be considered in the coming weeks - he didn't actually use the words "deeper in the election campaign" - and even then suggested expectations be calibrated against the word "modest".

Commentators have quickly detected political wiggle room ahead.

It hasn't escaped notice a $500 million increase in projected new spending next year represents scope for the Government to announce (by which we really mean decide) further benedictions during the election campaign.

Those looking to see where the $4.7 billion from asset sales has gone will find $200 million for health capital projects, about the same for Kiwirail, $172 million for school property and $40 million for irrigation infrastructure.

Labour and the Greens have been hammering the debt issue. Always landscape-minded, Green Party co-leader Russel Norman spoke of "mountains and mountains and mountains of debt" whereas Labour's David Cunliffe totted up $56 billion during the term of this Government.

The question is whether this will loom more vividly in people's thinking than recent events across the ditch.

Australia has done English the very considerate favour of delivering a gasper of a hard-times Budget just days before his. So if it was a test, we'd be the winners, right? And who doesn't like beating the Aussies? Big tick for the Nats, then?

Truth to tell those contrasting fortunes are indeed likely to accelerate the net immigration inflow of more than 38,000 this year. That's assuming people have been paying attention, what with that fabulous cat footage.

The Southland Times