Editorial: Spending cap should make us better off

Finance Minister Bill English. Photo / NZPA
Finance Minister Bill English. Photo / NZPA

Sir Roger Douglas has departed the political stage again but he may have left another enduring monument in Act's agreement with National this week. A law to cap increases in government spending could prove to be as effective as one of his great legacies of the 1980s, the Reserve Bank's inflation target.

Like the monetary target, the spending cap will sometimes be honoured in the breach but the target is no less effective for that. When it is breached, there needs to be a good reason, and a credible path set to bring inflation back into line. So it will be for the fiscal cap. National has agreed to legislation that will permit the Crown's core operating expenses to increase no faster than the rate of population growth multiplied by the inflation rate. In the event of a breach, the Minister of Finance will have to offer an explanation to Parliament and outline what will be done to rein in future increases.

The definition of core operating expenses will exclude finance charges, the unemployment benefit, asset impairments and spending on natural disasters.

Those exemptions should give governments ample room to provide relief in recessions and emergencies. The purpose of the cap is clearly not to prevent governments running deficits in times like the present but to control spending in better times.

It is too easy, as the previous government proved, to take on ever larger commitments when business is booming, the workforce is fully employed and tax revenue is providing budget surpluses. The country hardly noticed that state spending was steadily becoming a greater proportion of the economy in the years that surpluses also enabled continuing reductions of public debt.

More generous medical subsidies, paid maternity leave, early education, interest-free student loans, higher public service pay rates, a "super goldcard" are not the kind of expenses that can be wound back when the business cycle turns down and revenue drops. They instantly become entitlements that a future government fears to threaten.

A statutory spending cap will not prevent political excesses but it could bring a balance to parliamentary and public debate. The focus might no longer be solely on the benefit to be provided, the implications for the country's finances and economic management will be clearly measurable and indulgences will have to be justified.

Ultimately, of course, a parliamentary majority can do whatever it wants in this country and no Parliament can bind the next. A statutory spending restriction can be breached and even repealed as readily as the Bill of Rights Act. That act requires the Attorney-General to alert Parliament to proposed legislation that would breach the rights enshrined. The public takes note, the government needs a convincing case to proceed in political safety.

Laws of such limited power should not be under-rated. The lack of any stronger sanction is a strength, it makes it harder for a future government to repeal a statute that can do more than keep governments honest.

National has been not much keener than Labour on a legislated spending limit but it is already living within the limit agreed with Act. The cap is a credit not only to Sir Roger who has long argued for it, but to the recently deceased director of the Business Roundtable, Roger Kerr, who maintained a lonely watch against rising public expenditure, and Don Brash whose brief leadership of Act restored its focus on economic fundamentals.

Fiscal responsibility is a prosaic, thankless contribution to public welfare but if government spending rises no faster than population growth and low inflation from here on, we should all be better off.

- NZ Herald

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