John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

'Sweet and sour' approach averts Budget outcry

Bill English. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Bill English. Photo / Mark Mitchell

For National ministers charged with the tricky job of selling an austerity Budget, choosing their words has been everything.

In the run-up to Budget Day, they have avoided using the word "cuts" . They have instead referred to finding "savings", making "trade-offs" and "rebalancing" spending.

Finance Minister Bill English's so-called "Zero Budget" speaks for itself. There is precious little, if any, money for new spending.

However, Budget politics dictate that the Government show it is both alive and responsive where the pressure for more spending is intense and valid.

The past three weeks have seen drip-feeding of announcements to get the maximum political bangs for the Government's increasingly limited bucks.

What is different this year is that the "good news" initiatives have been accompanied by some "bad news" statements.

It is a matter of getting the latter out of the way beforehand, so they don't sully Budget Day for National.

Given tight fiscal conditions, the announcements would have no credibility without some explanation about where the money is coming from.

However, the Government has restricted such explanations to generalised statements about how much will come from savings within a particular portfolio - but without detailing which programmes will suffer.

So far, the "sweet and sour" approach - which, for example, has the Government saying more elective surgery and more streamlined cancer treatment will be funded by higher prescription charges - seems to be working for it. The public outcry over the charges was relatively brief.

You usually have to read the fine print to find the sour element. Education Minister Hekia Parata's announcement of an "extra $511.9 million" for education did not mention the increase in teacher-pupil ratios until the 15th paragraph of her 26-paragraph statement.

Others have been more upfront. Health Minister Tony Ryall put out a separate statement announcing the prescription charge rise from $3 to $5 an item.

One of the big questions today will be whether the 2012 Budget marks the advent of a more marked user-pays regime.

That does not seem to be the case. It seems more a case of ministers trawling for potential cuts which will inflict minimal political pain than an indication of National adopting a deliberate switch to a more user-pays regime.

- NZ Herald

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