It's an election-year lolly scramble

CATCH THIS: The mind boggles at how much largesse could be promised this year.
CATCH THIS: The mind boggles at how much largesse could be promised this year.

Good morning and welcome to this special edition of Who Wants To Spend Like A Millionaire (SLAM).

Joining us today are three contestants; Team Red, Team Blue, and Team Green. They'll all be trying to spend as much of your money as possible in the time available. Take it away, guys.

Team Blue: "We'll set up a new network of specialist teachers and principals throughout the country and pay them much more. We reckon it will cost around $359 million of taxpayers' money."

Team Green: "There is such a thing a free lunch and we'll prove it. We'll provide all decile 1-4 schools in the country with food and medical care at a cost of around $100m a year."

Team Red: "Phffft. Pocket change. We'll give nearly everyone in the country who has a baby $60 a week, even really rich people. There's quite a bit of fine print but we'll let you read it for yourself. It's going to cost a whopping $528m every single year within four years."

Team Blue: "Objection! Team Red's policy doesn't kick in for ages and in the meantime it's only $147m a year. Plus, we'll extend paid parental leave too, although we haven't costed it yet and actually haven't even agreed to it."

Sustained! The winner of this week's SLAM dunk is Team Blue, for spending more money in a shorter time frame while simultaneously indulging in finger-wagging parsimony AND criticising opposing teams for their own spending at the same time.

And the losers? Taxpayers, who've found their elected representatives have collectively managed to write cheques totalling nearly a billion dollars in the first week of the political year. With another 46-odd weeks until the election, the mind boggles at how much largesse could be promised this year.

I haven't seen a lolly scramble like this since 2005, which funnily enough was the last time the Government's books were in surplus. It's strange how the merest whiff of a positive balance sheet can send even the most fiscally conservative politicians off and spending like drunken sailors.

It's pretty clear that this year is shaping up as a battle for the baby vote, with Labour, National and the Greens already staking claims to represent families with children across the income scale.

It's awfully middle-class - and awfully unfair on taxpayers who don't have children yet are still asked to pay for those who do. Labour in particular are masters at offering "free" money in return for the votes of the mortgage-belt.

They did it extremely effectively in 2005, when Labour turned around a wafer-thin deficit in the polls on the back of some profligate spending to woo middle and upper-middle income voters with a big extension of the Working For Families welfare scheme.

They also did it in 2002 when they axed interest on student loans, thereby directing a big chunk of grateful tertiary students (and their parents) into the polling booths.

And National, for all its tsk-tsking at the time, did little to wind back these bank-breaking election bribes when in office, except to tinker around the margins. It's kind of ironic that Prime Minister John Key and Finance Minister Bill English have spent the past week criticising Labour's "Best Start" policy and yet have mentioned little besides its cost - which isn't much different to its own education initiative.

The reason, of course, is that National knows Labour's idea is likely to be popular. Giving away money always is, which is why the prospect of tax cuts is likely to be dangled before voters later in the year - although probably not actually promised just yet.

The Greens, always portrayed as spendthrifts by National, have so far spent less money than either of the main parties, although the year is still in its infancy.

Speaking of infants, Labour is going to have a hard time convincing me that giving everyone $60 a week just for having a baby is a good idea - or is likely to raise productivity (except perhaps in the bedroom). It's unlikely to lead to an increase in the birth rate either, as no-one in their right mind is going to think it's a good idea to have a child just for the privilege of an extra $60 a week for between six months and three years.

It might, however, make some think twice about returning to the work force, or scaling back their hours, neither of which will help productivity either. It could also convince anyone thinking of emigrating to New Zealand to start a family to hold off until they arrive, in order to cash in. Plenty of Kiwis have given birth in Australia to claim the baby bonus there, a scheme the Australian government acknowledges is hugely expensive, hasn't helped the economy, and is now being wound right back as its economy falters.

Labour's first election-year salvo is therefore good politics but bad policy. National's education announcement is costly, but might benefit us all in the long run.

Hopefully Labour's leader David Cunliffe will come up with some other ideas besides mere redistribution of income as the year unfolds.

It's been said that the New Zealand economy is likely to be the "rock star" of 2014 but we all know what happens to rock stars who spend all their money on having a good time. I've said it before - the only way we're going to become a top-tier First World country is by growing the pie.

Sadly, we've always been much better at eating them.

Sunday Star Times