John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Minister's message: Don't fret - but don't get complacent either

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Finance Minister Bill English. Photo / Richard Robinson
Finance Minister Bill English. Photo / Richard Robinson

In the unlikely event you lie awake at night fretting about the Government's books, Bill English has a message for you. You don't need to worry too much. But you still need to worry.

If the Finance Minister sounded like he was talking in riddles yesterday while releasing the Government's financial statements for the 2012-13 year, it was to make an important distinction in his mind. The figures offer further grounds for believing National will meet its credibility-enhancing target of Budget surplus by 2014-15 with relative ease if current revenue and spending stay on track.

So the long hard slog of getting the books back into the black which began in 2008 after the global financial crisis looks like having a happy ending. The good news in the interim - if you can call it good news - is that the country is now borrowing about $110 million a week compared with $260 million a week two years ago. So there's less reason to worry. But English stressed that while reaching the target was important, it was not an end in itself.

What mattered was what followed.

With one eye firmly fixed on next year's election, he is trying to frame the political debate on the "choices" that would open up to Governments and political parties in terms of being able to "invest" more in priority public services or reduce debt - or a combination of both.

English clearly favours a strong emphasis on debt repayment, not least as insurance in the event of a further financial meltdown internationally.

His cautious approach is typified by his delay in resuming contributions to the Michael Cullen-established NZ Superannuation Fund until 2021.

English warned there was no room for complacency, no room for political lolly scrambles. The country needed to stick to National's programme of "considered and consistent" change.

No matter that Labour is committed to the very same target date for getting back to surplus. English's ploy is to paint Opposition parties as innately fiscally reckless; that they will undo all the hard work and sacrifice entailed in getting the accounts ship-shape.

- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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