Rob Salmond: Bill will show us the money

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Bill English will make sure the Budget delivers a surplus. Photo / Getty Images
Bill English will make sure the Budget delivers a surplus. Photo / Getty Images

Tis the week of the Budget
And all through the House
Not a creature is stirring
Not even the usual leakers.

On Thursday, Bill English will deliver his sixth Budget. This will be a huge relief for National MPs, mainly because it means that for a day or two they can talk about something other than Judith Collins, Oravida or Cabinet Clubs.

There will be a small surplus in the Budget, of course. English's backroom team will massage every number and accounting convention they can find to make good on their solemn promise to tax more than they spend.

This won't leave much room to deliver any big programmes, despite National's claims of "rock star" economic status. Instead, I expect National will tinker around the edges.

On issues on which National is vulnerable, like housing, it will try to nullify Labour's strong policies using more small programmes with big names.

And on issues that matter to National's base, like roads, there will be at least the promise of large projects. But the spending will be pushed into future years, to avoid breaking the surplus.

I have staffed both sides of Budget week, piecing it together in the Beehive and sweating it out in opposition.

In opposition, you are entirely in the dark until an hour before the Budget speech, when you are herded into a room with a tree's worth of Budget documents, no internet and the grumpy Treasury officials who drew the short straw. It's like a Where's Wally exam.

It is much, much more fun in government. Delivering to your people in Budget week is why many people get interested in politics.

Governments often send tens of thousands of letters trumpeting the Budget's new initiatives, complete with pages of "model families", so bored people can see how pretend people will fare.

You know the ones:"Bill earns $30,000 and Jill earns $70,000. Each has one leg. Thanks to the Budget, Bill and Jill receive an extra $12.78 + GST a week in the Government's Have Extra Legs Pronto (HELP) scheme."

In Labour, our internal argument was about whether to call the couple Bill and Jill, which risked cultural imperialism, or Aroha and Su-Hyun, which risked looking like PC-gone-mad idiots. Often, we compromised - Bill and Su-Hyun.

National doesn't have to deal with this conflict. With them, it is Bill and Jill all the way, often with a bennie-bashing angle thrown in.

Last week's was a gem: "We'll bribe a few beneficiaries with $3000 to move their life to Christchurch and pay exorbitant rents." That dog don't hunt.

I expect this Budget will be a flash in the pan. Within a week or two, we will all be back to wondering why nobody has fired Judith Collins yet.

• Rob Salmond runs Polity, a Wellington-based analytics and communications firm. The Herald on Sunday will publish a range of views "out of leftfield" over the next month.

- Herald on Sunday

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