Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Neither 'communism by stealth' or a 'Cabinet Club' Budget

44 comments
Finance Minister Bill English is congratulated by Prime Minister John Key after reading his 2014 Budget in Parliament, Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Finance Minister Bill English is congratulated by Prime Minister John Key after reading his 2014 Budget in Parliament, Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Does this year's Budget represent 'communism by stealth' as some on the political right would have it, or is it a 'Cabinet Club' Budget for the rich as some on the left allege? Neither actually. Although Bill English and John Key have taken National on a slight detour to the left, it's far from radical or socialist. And allegations from Labour and the Greens that this is a 'Cabinet Club Budget' are woefully out of sync with how it will be received. In the end, National has smartly managed to cleave a middle line that suggests they are both fiscally responsible and socially concerned.

Bizarre 'Cabinet Club' claims

Labour and the Greens seem determined to stay on message and portray this Budget as a step to the right by the Government, regardless of the reality. They are attempting to connect it with recent National Party controversies about fundraising from wealthy donors and the corporate sector - see TV3's Opposition slams 'Cabinet Club Budget'. Bizarrely, Green Co-leader Russel Norman referred to it as the 'Cabinet Club' Budget 29 times in his Budget speech, as if he hadn't taken any notice of what was actually in the Budget. Similarly, Winston Peters' main line was that the Budget amounted to 'cake for cronies, crumbs for New Zealanders'.

Claire Trevett reflects on Labour's difficulty in responding to the Budget: 'Mr Cunliffe then sought to have his cake and eat it too. He first of all claimed credit for much of the Budget, saying policies such as paid parental leave, bowel cancer screening and tackling kauri dieback disease were stolen in a blatant raid on Labour.

Having done so, he proceeded to give the Budget a big thumbs-down' - see: No lollies but lots of 'fudge'.

As Barry Soper says, 'Labour's bitterly complaining though. The complaint that The Tories are looking after their rich mates is a little difficult to fathom and so is their chant that it's a 'Cabinet Club annual report'. It's doubtful the donors to the Tories will be popping the champagne corks over this one' - see: Cunliffe fudged his Budget reaction.

The best leftwing critique of the Budget has come, not from Opposition politicians, but from political journalist Gordon Campbell. He accuses National of political cynicism and cheap vote-buying - see: On yesterday's 'let them eat crumbs' Budget. While Campbell agrees National have gone for a Labour-lite approach, he notes they've done so on a tight budget: 'For this performance, National is receiving a round of applause for its tactical brilliance, and its skill in triangulating Labour's social policy programme, for a relative pittance. National seems to have perfected the art of lowering the ceiling of expectations, and then painting a few pretty pictures on it to divert the paying customer'.

Predictable responses from the right

The criticisms from the right have mostly been muted. But it's certainly possible to detect some unhappiness on National's right. In the Twittersphere, for example, Cameron Slater (@Whaleoil) responded to the Budget with: 'So Bill English delivers yet another breeders budget'. Matthew Hooton (@MatthewHootonNZ) questioned why the 'govt is promoting a more left-wing PPL policy than @lailaharre in 2002'. And National Party activist Jordan McCluskey (@JordanMcCluskey) tweeted, 'Congratulations to the Muldoon government on their 15th budget'.

One of the strongest critiques has come from the 'radical right' Cathy Odgers who bemoans that Bill 'English has morphed into a less witty Michael Cullen'. She thinks National's budget was the result of market research by the likes of David Farrar: 'This offering is the "Pollsters Budget", smelling as if National pollster Curia conned a committee of confirmed Labour voters to meet for pizza and $50, then appointed a moderator and banged together Billy's Budget. Election budgets should lob lollies to potential voters, not Opposition true believers. Again Bill English acted like the quintessential smug Kiwi farmer content with increasing wealth on unrealised tax-free capital gains. He bottled it' - see: If this Budget is centre-right, what would the left hatch?.

Mike Hosking generally approves of the Budget, although disagrees strongly with the universal extension of free doctor visits to children under 13: 'Why on earth that's not means tested is beyond me, unless it's too complex to do so.

Subsidising families that don't need it so they can take their kid to the doctor every time they get a sniffle is a waste of money' - see: Budget a document built on confidence. Hosking takes aim at those criticising the Government for not doing more for first home buyers: 'just what was it they were wanting? Did they want the Government to buy them a house?'

Not all on the radical right disapprove of National's centrist pragmatism. Fran O'Sullivan justifies the shift away from principle by praising John Key's strategic skills, as well as disputing the idea that Labour has a 'monopoly on social policies' - see: Left stewing at poached policy.

Actually a Labour-lite Budget

Rather than a radical shift to the left or right, the Budget was really just a small, but well timed detour to the left. It was the type of Budget that could have been produced by Michael Cullen - as pointed out by Pattrick Smellie in The worm turns in Budget 2014.

And as I suggested in my Wednesday morning column - National's Labour-lite Budget - this has led to significant problems for Labour. It's a situation that is spelt out very well in an insightful blog post by Lew Stoddart titled National lite. He says that the Budget has ruined the Opposition's ill-thought-out election strategy: 'Bill English's sixth budget - somewhat like the preceding five, but to a greater extent - does a little good and almost no evil, and that basically ruins the opposition's game plan, which relies on Bill English and John Key being terrible ogres that eat babies, rather than supporting their parents with leave entitlements. When the man touted as the Labour party's most left-wing leader in a generation is reduced to complaining that John Key has stolen his party's policy - as if that is supposed to be a bad thing - things are pretty dire'.

Stoddart complains that Labour has become too centrist or 'lite' itself: 'Far from full-cream Labour, Labour itself is Labour lite. Light-blue, even; 98% Ideology-free. If they're going to play the National-lite game, they at least need to get good at it'. But for an equally interesting reply to this, see Danyl Mclauchlan's Winning.

Economist Matt Nolan makes some similar and equally strong observations in his blog post, National's not alternative budget: Budget 2014. He complains that Labour and the Greens appear to have given up on fighting against inequality and are more concerned with trying to create policies in favour of business: 'Don't get me wrong, Labour talk about poverty, but their policy solutions are ... running a surplus, giving money to "winning" firms, and "magically" having lower unemployment for no given reason. I had assumed that after they canned the tax-free threshold policy they were going to announce something - seems not. Labour, the Greens, and National have all focused on the fact they are "responsible", they are going to "run surpluses", and they are going to "pay down debt" - and those statements are popular with the voters. But I've only seen one party target education and vulnerable families with policy suggestions - the two biggest concerns regarding inequality of opportunity - and that has actually been National'.

Similar points about how this Budget blunts Labour's election messages are made in columns by John Armstrong (Budget robs Labour of election punch), Tracy Watkins (The ground has moved now surplus sussed), and Corin Dann (Baby Budget aims to please).

Many commentators are actually scathing about this Budget pragmatism - Patrick Gower says 'It is a shameless pitch for centre ground voters with kids, a cynical bid to hang onto soft Labour voters' - see: Bill English's baby bribe Budget. And Duncan Garner says: 'it's also a very cynical, clever and highly-targeted election year budget... It's cynical because National has tacked into areas it was previously vulnerable on - see: Bill's Baby budget.

Others point to just how bland and boring the Budget is - see Anthony Hubbard's Government plays it safe with budget and TV3's Budget 2014 lacks vision - economist and Professor slams 'modest' families package.

Vernon Small points to the 'smoke and mirrors' involved in creating the surplus - see Reduced EQC liabilities main contributor to $372m surplus. And Andrea Vance usefully details The losers. You can also look at a visual representation of the Budget, with Harkanwal Singh's Interactive graphic: Where the Budget money goes, and Keith Ng's Visualisation.

Finally, there hasn't really been any winning folksy name for the Budget this year, but in terms of coverage perhaps it might be seen as the Twitter Budget, because there was an incredible surge in the use of Twitter to follow and comment on the Budget as it was unpacked this year. There were many insightful, humourous, and interesting tweets made over the last 24 hours, but unfortunately not a lot of these tweets came from the politicians or the parties. This is a point well made by Twitter-specialist Matthew Beveridge - see his blog posts, Powerpoint, Twitter and the National Party, Budget 2014: Social Media Thoughts (National), and Budget Graphics Post. To see some of the best tweets, read my blog post, Top tweets about the 2014 Budget, and check out Cartoons and images of the 2014 Budget.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

Read more by Bryce Edwards

Have your say

We aim to have healthy debate. But we won't publish comments that abuse others. View commenting guidelines.

1200 characters left

Sort by
  • Oldest

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf05 at 28 Dec 2014 10:39:52 Processing Time: 738ms