Bright and bushy-tailed plans are apt to pour forth from a Government new to power. The merit of many of those ideas is, however, uncertain until the means of bringing them to fruition are explained precisely. As a forum for announcing such detail, there is none more appropriate than an incoming Government's first Budget preview. It is a prime opportunity to make defining statements about economic strategy as well as spending intentions for the next three years. By that yardstick, yesterday's Budget Policy Statement was a disappointment - much about general spending and saving but nothing that could be called a distinctive idea.
There is the long-planned superannuation fund. According to the Finance Minister, the document reflected the Government's concern to achieve "inter-generational fairness." Priority, he said, would be given to the new Ministry of Economic Development, to science and research, and social spending to close gaps. Much was made of the case for the partial pre-funding of superannuation, a departure from the previous Government's emphasis on repaying debt. If there are few specifics, and mainly an analysis of partial pre-funding's impact on the accounts, that, in this instance, is understandable. Key details are yet to be thrashed out with the Labour Party's coalition partners. Possibly, they never will be.
But what of other nuts and bolts regarding, say, health spending? Virtually nothing.
The vacuum is frustrating for any number of reasons. It is now the best part of four months since the Government took office. Time enough, one would have imagined, for it to have sized up the economic situation and to have a firm grasp on the implementation of its major policies. Unfortunately, the Budget Policy Statement is not an isolated example of such a penchant for the broad sweep. Last week's announcement of the establishment of the Government's economic delivery arm, Industry New Zealand, was similarly notable for a lack of particulars. This, of course, is fertile ground for insecurity. Financial markets are not alone in disliking that state of affairs. They would have been reasonably comforted by the Budget Policy Statement's message that, fiscally, this will not be a seriously loose Government. But the worry beads will not be pocketed until the Government's intentions are more clearly known.
The Government's diffidence is the more surprising in that its position is relatively healthy. So much so that it plans to spend an extra $5.9 billion over the next three years, while producing operating surpluses in line with those of the former Government. This is courtesy of income tax increases on those earning more than $60,000 and stronger growth forecasts in the near term. The purse strings will be at their loosest as the next election looms.
As though he had anticipated criticism, Dr Cullen made a point yesterday of noting that the National Government's last budget preview was similarly devoid of detail. What he did not mention was that that document was roundly criticised for failing to deliver sorely needed inspiration; or that National at least had the excuse of being strapped for cash; or that the party's tired appearance led to its defeat at the ballot box within a year. The new Government is riding high in public esteem; the country feels inspired by Team New Zealand's America's Cup success. But the honeymoon will founder all too soon if the road ahead is not clearly signposted.