Christmas week is not the best time for a new Parliament to hear the speech from the throne. The working year is winding down, the country is clearing desks, attending festivities, shopping and thinking of a summer holiday. The re-elected Government is probably no exception. The speech it gave the Governor-General to deliver yesterday was hardly an exciting start to its second term.
It recalled the local and global disasters, natural and financial, that have dogged its first term and it continued to worry about the European debt crisis. It restated the goal of balancing the Budget by the end of this term with tight control of spending that would allow only $800 million for operating increases in the next two Budgets.
It said that once the Government's accounts were back in surplus, it would introduce automatic enrolment in the KiwiSaver scheme. It said nothing about resuming contributions to the public fund that the previous Government set up to help the next generation meet the baby boomers' retirement costs. That should be the priority.
Despite deficits for the next two years, the Government said it could reduce public debt in this term and build a more competitive economy. To the latter end, it will establish an "advanced technological institute" for the high-tech manufacturing and services sectors. If the institute materialises it would probably take three years.
Education and infrastructure are the best contributions governments can make to the economy. National says it will attempt to provide early childhood education to 98 per cent of pre-schoolers. As agreed with the Act Party, it will also fund independent "charter" schools in South Auckland and East Christchurch if any initiatives are forthcoming.
Undeterred by the row over National Standards during its first term, it intends to set up a more rigorous system of assessing teachers and principals this term. Tertiary education, too, will be made more accountable, with funding based on measures of performance.
For infrastructure, the speech reaffirmed a 10-year highway construction programme costing $12 billion, despite the news that the Transport Agency has had to ask the Auckland Council to help fund its programme in this region. The other big infrastructure outlay, $5.5 billion for repairs in Christchurch, will help stimulate the economy from later next year but cannot be counted an increase in the country's productive capacity.
The same will be said of the partial asset sales also re-affirmed in the speech. Floating minority stakes in four state-owned enterprises will add some much-needed gilt to the stockmarket and make the companies answerable to active shareholders. Those are benefits enough.
Among other familiar projects restated yesterday were ACC's exposure to competition, welfare reform, a youth minimum wage, a hastening of some resource consents and oil and gas exploration permits.
It was a brief speech and lacked big themes that might have given the country a sense of where the Government wants to go. When it was done, the party leaders set about their replies, then the House rose for its summer break.
How much better it would have been to have postponed proceedings to the day Parliament returns for the new year.
There may be good reason for the House to meet soon after an election for the swearing-in of members, the election of the Speaker and the recognition of the Government formed on the election result. But the serious business could surely wait until after the break, when the Government and the country are refreshed and ready to think ahead.