John Armstrong: Hard times give us dual crusades

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Increasingly, the story of the 2008 election is a tale of two election campaigns.

The first campaign has everyone pretending nothing has changed and it is business as usual. The other campaign accepts everything has changed in the wake of the global financial crisis.

Stuck fast in the first campaign are most of Parliament's minor parties. They are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the main action. They are in denial that the party is over.

They continue to promise to spend money on this or that. But they are not going to be able to extract the requisite cash from the two big parties in post-election talks. There simply is not going to be any money spare.

The minor parties have not adjusted to that reality. As a result they are finding themselves ignored.

It is a different story for the major parties. National accepts the party's over. Labour knows the party's over. But it is hoping some voters haven't noticed.

In the pretend campaign, Labour continues to spend money it does not really have, this week targeting students, their parents, beneficiaries in part-time work and the elderly.

The spending was clearly planned before international financial markets went into free-fall and the Treasury produced far gloomier forecasts of the state of the Government accounts.

Despite Budget surpluses turning into ongoing deficits, Labour continues to roll out new spending, using the fig-leaf of a three-to-four year phase-in period for new policies to try to hide its embarrassment from those questioning how this squares with the party's claim to be fiscally responsible.

But the pretend campaign is having to make way for the real one as the international crisis has worsened.

Labour has now grabbed the bull by the horns, using the likelihood of the country's slipping into a deep recession as an opportunity to demonstrate political leadership.

It is now proposing a Keynesian-style spend-up as an economic stimulus. A December mini-Budget would bring forward rail, road and other construction projects to keep people in work.

In what is termed "counter-cyclical economic management", Cullen is saying paying off debt during the good times has provided room to borrow to stave off the bad times.

But he will not be drawn on how much borrowing and how much debt. He says that is because the likely severity of recessionary forces will not become clearer until some time after the November 8 election, at which point the Treasury will update its forecasts before the mini-Budget.

Which is all rather convenient for Labour. National is justifiably arguing that Labour is asking voters to write it a blank cheque. Without figures or forecasts, voters are flying blind.

Labour is behind in this election, however. It has to go for broke.

National is being far more cautious because it is the one looking more likely to have to clean up the mess. Its stimulus is principally $1.4 billion-worth of tax cuts which it would bring forward to next April, when it believes the economy will most need it.

National is being transparent about how big its stimulus will be. Labour isn't. Only a week or two ago Labour accused National of being fiscally reckless with its tax cuts. National can now fire that charge straight back.

- NZ Herald

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