Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett: 'Boring' Bill loves to be Budget crowd-pleaser

Housing issues of all shapes are popping out for the Government like a game of whack-a-mole.
English's Budgets are not boring. They are cunning. Photo / Mark Mitchell
English's Budgets are not boring. They are cunning. Photo / Mark Mitchell

It was a week before the Budget and National and Labour had their stars aligned for one dramatic moment. They had found a common enemy in the outer suburbs of Auckland - Auckland Council and its urban limit.

This is the time of year when things get scrappy. Labour tries to pre-empt what might be in the Budget so it can later put out a press release either congratulating the Government for picking up on its good ideas, or claim the Government was pressured into something by the Opposition.

Hence Labour's sudden rush to declare, Lady MacBeth-like, "out, out damned urban limit".

Housing Minister Nick Smith had hinted the hard word was about to go on and Finance Minister Bill English started shaking down Auckland Council with ominous words such as "on notice". All that chest-thumping in advance indicated something could be coming in the Budget.

The other technique is to make the maximum chaos out of pre-Budget announcements, as the Opposition parties have done on homelessness.

Unfortunately for the Opposition, they are playing blind. National knows what is coming - the Budget is already pinned down and on the way to the printer. It also has a good poker face. It managed to keep the centrepiece of last year's Budget - an increase in benefit payments - quiet until Budget day.

In his pre-Budget speech English said he was trying to make the Budget "less of a focus each year". He said this with a straight face. Do not be fooled.

Budgets put the Government at the centre of attention for weeks on end. If they get it right, it is the right type of attention. If they get it wrong woe betide them. National's first Budgets were dull as dishwater and that was exactly what the voters wanted.

Chill winds were blowing. Those were the long years of "zero Budgets", of English muttering about a ban on "nice to haves". He fostered his reputation as "boring" with relish, becoming the master of under- promise and over-deliver.

But English's Budgets are not boring. They are cunning. English puts on a performance of being dour but he likes to deliver a crowd-pleaser. More importantly, Prime Minister John Key likes him to deliver a crowd-pleaser.

The signs were ominous this time round. English appeared to loosen up a bit last year, announcing he was giving himself a treat and increasing his extra spending allowance to a staggering $2.5 billion next year.

Last week English got the speed wobbles, deciding that rather than give that out as lolly he would bring it forward and use $1.2 billion tagged for tax cuts to pay off debt instead. But Budgets are as much about packaging as they are about content.

This Budget will not be aimed at boosting National's support in the polls. It does not need a gamechanging Budget. It simply needs a draw. What it will be aiming for is warding off any erosion in its support base. To do that, National has to be sure it is not doing anything to hinder its chances of a fourth term.

Budgets are designed to scratch an itch. The tax cut itch is not yet itching again so the Government has put it on hold. At the moment, the itch that is threatening to turn into a rash for National is housing. Housing issues of all shapes are popping out at the Government like a congregation of jacks in a box. There is expensive housing, state housing, social housing, emergency housing, cold, damp housing and those with no housing at all. National will want to show progress in Auckland before the 2017 election and it has to get that under way soon, not least because it cannot afford to make an election year all about Auckland and risk alienating the regions.

But the area in which National is getting worried is in health. Health hits bang-smack in middle New Zealand. It is the first place Opposition MPs go to when looking for cuts. Years of "reprioritising" have meant some DHBs are now stretched so far they are at risk of rupture.

This has not been helped by unexpected population growth. If there is one thing where Governments can swiftly and mercilessly be punished by voters over its failures in health.

One seemingly trivial decision can send the whole lot toppling down. English was Health Minister from 1996 to 1999, straight after Finance Minister Bill Birch cut funding to PlunketLine in 1995 as one measure to try to ensure a surplus. In the end it got the surplus - and a three-year headache of justifying such a petty cut. That cut to PlunketLine came to be a symbol of a Government that had lost its perspective and had its priorities wrong.

English learned a lesson from that and has passed it on to Key. It is little surprise that in his first Budget in 2009 English fully restored funding to PlunketLine, turning it into a 24/7 helpline for parents.

Increasingly hopeful of a fourth term, National won't want to see its careful work so far threatened by things overboiling in health.

Over the years National has become adept at Budgets. It had some training-wheel wobbles in its earlier years. It will be a long time before English and Education Minister Hekia Parata forget the ill-fated 2012 attempt to increase class sizes to save money. Even the Prime Minister's prodigious salesman skills were not enough to convince voters of that one.

Cutting the $1000 KiwiSaver kickstart was another dangerous call. But National has developed a very slick machine with an early warning system of trouble spots. Between them, English and Key have become adept at detecting where trouble looms and moving to pre-empt it.

National's Budget last year left Labour gulping like a goldfish after it was blindsided by the announcement of an increase in benefit payments. The most traction it could get was deriding Nick Smith's grand scheme of reinvigorating an old Labour plan and conducting a stocktake of Crown land in Auckland to convert anything going spare into housing.

That was announced before it was fully thought out, and delivered theatrics such as Smith striding manfully across vacant grassy knolls in suburbia and Labour's Phil Twyford revealing many sites had serenity akin to Bonnydoon in The Castle thanks to the proximity of pylons, railway lines and exploding substations. A sequel to that is expected in this Budget.

Despite that salutary lesson in underestimating your opponent, this year Labour's Andrew Little has already begun criticising National for catering to "the wealthy few". It is not what National does for the wealthy few that represents the danger to Labour, but rather National's blatant and shameless cuckolding of Labour in the heartland of the left.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor and joined the Press Gallery in 2007. She began with the Herald in 2003 as the Northland reporter before moving to Auckland where her rounds included education and media. A graduate of AUT's post-graduate diploma in journalism, Claire began her journalism career in 2002 at the Northern Advocate in Whangarei. Claire has conjoint Bachelor of Law/ Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Canterbury.

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