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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: English has good reason to be cautious

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Bill English today revealed the Treasury's latest take on the state of the Government books. Photo / Richard Robinson
Bill English today revealed the Treasury's latest take on the state of the Government books. Photo / Richard Robinson

No matter the economic circumstances - whether rosy or not - finance ministers always exhibit caution. But Bill English was oozing caution in bucket loads as he revealed the Treasury's latest take on the state of the Government books today.

With good political reason, however.

The most surprising figure in the update of forecasts in last May's Budget was the degree to which the Government will just scrape into surplus by its target date of June 2015.

The Budget expected National to achieve a very modest surplus of $75 million by that date - absolute peanuts in the context of the billions of dollars reaped in taxes and then committed to government spending.

Despite the Treasury expecting a relatively strong upturn in the economy, that surplus forecast has been raised by a tiny $11 million.

With typical understatement, English admitted it was "not the largest" surplus ever forecast.

Having invested so much political stock in returning to surplus by that date, English does not want to make it look too easy an achievement.

Neither does he want to give Labour more fiscal flexibility so that party can make bigger spending promises next year which, of course is election year.

Even though the size of the surplus quickly reaches the billions in subsequent years, English was not willing to be pinned down on the inevitable question of the prospect of future tax cuts, saying any such announcements were unlikely in his election-year Budget.

He instead preached the virtues of starting repaying debt a year earlier than scheduled along with a similar faster resumption of contributions to Cullen superannuation fund.

English stressed surpluses were all about "choices". What he means is the choice between - as he sees it - prudent National and profligate Labour.

- 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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