Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett: Ready to make bubble and squeak

Expect the ritual handshake from Prime Minister John Key to Finance Minister Bill English after his second 'zero' Budget. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Expect the ritual handshake from Prime Minister John Key to Finance Minister Bill English after his second 'zero' Budget. Photo / Mark Mitchell

One of the best traditional Budget games is interpreting the cryptic hints dropped by finance ministers in the lead-up to the big day.

Labour's former Finance Minister Michael Cullen took to this game with some relish, gyrating in his own interpretative version of the Dance of the Seven Veils in the lead-up to every Budget he delivered. Sometimes it was all a big tease and there was nothing under those veils. Sometimes there was a big surprise: Working for Families, interest-free student loans, KiwiSaver.

Finance Minister Bill English, however, takes the more minimalistic approach of the Dance of One Veil.

English's approach to Budgets is less the big bang approach than the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock approach: he measures it out in coffee spoons.

So by and large the most significant Budget initiatives have been pre-announced in dribbles over the past few weeks.

The victims of the Budget are known: take a bow smokers, those few students who still qualify for student allowances, people who need prescriptions and young wastrels who will only be able to buy nutritious foods with their benefits rather than anything that amounts to fun.

Those who might get some benefit from the Budget are also known: beneficiaries who want contraception, and more funding for elective surgery and cancer services. There is more money for teacher recruitment and training and other education initiatives are expected. But the trade-offs are larger class sizes and performance pay for teachers. We know we are still broke and expected to be broke for some years to come - although there could be a surprise in discovering exactly how broke we are.

English's one veil this year is around his suggestions of a "tax-base broadening" measure aimed at higher income earners. Even that veil is as transparent as cling film as of yesterday, when he indicated it was something to do with holiday homes.

So when Bill English stands today, there will be little to shock and awe voters.

This is exactly how English likes it. The more soporific the Budget, the better. So far, the most pre-Budget excitement has been generated by the Opposition as they scramble to outflank each other. Green co-leader Russel Norman clucked a crescendo of "chicken, chicken" at Prime Minister John Key after he transferred a Budget-related question to Bill English to answer.

It is a sin to call someone a coward in Parliament, so Norman lost his chance to ask the question altogether, but got more publicity for the "chicken" squawk than he would have from the question.

For most ministers, however, this year's Budget will simply involve making a bubble and squeak out of the scraps of their announcements of previous years, putting them into the microwave for a bit of a reheat and presenting them on a new plate.

A very lucky few - Health Minister Tony Ryall, Education Minister Hekia Parata and Social Development Minister Paula Bennett - get extra money but other ministers suffer for it.

This brings us to the newer but no less enjoyable Budget game of "spot the cuts".

These days, every announcement of "new" funding, inevitably means funding has been cut from elsewhere to pay for it. The Government's clues for this are when a new project is funded from "reprioritised spending" or "savings" from elsewhere. Opposition parties put significant effort into this annual treasure hunt for cuts while the Government also goes to some effort to make sure the cuts are well hidden, but still visible enough to point to if accused of hiding them away.

Despite English's apparent lack of enthusiasm for Budget week games, one should at least make some effort to make the Budget seem like an occasion.

Former National Finance Minister Bill Birch had a haircut before every Budget. Michael Cullen invested in a new suit and wore a rose in his buttonhole. English does not bother with such fripperies - he doesn't even invest in a new tie. He does tolerate the traditional "show but don't tell" of the printing of the Budget - one of the last stages of the Dance of the [chosen number] of Veils in which the Finance Minister stands in a cold printing factory in the depths of Petone and pretends there is still something secret in the Budget.

This year even that was a lesser affair than in the past - to save money, fewer copies of the Budget have been printed so rather than the usual roaring, gargantuan printing press spitting out blue cover after blue cover, the Budget was rolling off a machine that looked more like a glorified photocopier.

This is English's fourth Budget and his second "zero" Budget. When Cullen delivered his fourth Budget in 2003, there was $1.6 billion of new spending and Cullen was criticised for "squirrelling away" his $4 billion surplus rather than spending it. At the time, he blamed "malign influences" for his apparent frugality, including weak global demand and the Sars virus. The year after that, he announced the multibillion-dollar Working for Families package and the year after that came his "Chewing Gum" Budget - in which he announced tax cuts which NZ First leader Winston Peters calculated would buy the average worker a pack of chewing gum a week. Cullen explained this away with: "as always, too much jam now is likely to lead to only crumbs later". Sure enough, he cancelled those tax cuts in 2007.

As it has transpired, not only was there no jam then but we still have crumbs today. Bill English has his own rather more compelling "malign influences" to blame for that - the global economic downturn and the Christchurch earthquakes. Thanks to those influences, voters have become accustomed to Budgets which make a virtue of not spending, rather than spending. In fact, they have come to demand them. Nonetheless, English has undoubtedly been avidly watching Master Chef for inspiration on how to turn those crumbs into something edible.

- NZ Herald

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Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor and joined the Press Gallery in 2007. She began with the Herald in 2003 as the Northland reporter before moving to Auckland where her rounds included education and media. A graduate of AUT's post-graduate diploma in journalism, Claire began her journalism career in 2002 at the Northern Advocate in Whangarei. Claire has conjoint Bachelor of Law/ Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Canterbury.

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