A good Budget gives the country a sense that the Government has a firm hand on the tiller and can see where it is going. This Budget does neither.

It claims to be bringing the deficit down more quickly but its plan for doing so rests on a hopeful prediction of 4 per cent economic growth next year rather than significant expenditure cuts now.

And its main hope for growth lies in the reconstruction of Christchurch, where the ground has not stopped shaking yet.

The much-heralded cuts to KiwiSaver subsidies, family tax credits and student loans turn out to be trifling. The Government's contribution to KiwiSaver funds - borrowed money at present - will be halved, but not until June next year.

The minimum personal contribution and compulsory employer contribution will rise by 1 per cent in 2013. Employer contributions will lose tax exemption. The package is unlikely to make much difference to national savings.

Family tax credits will start reducing at a slightly lower income threshhold and decrease faster as income rises. The changes will start next April but be phased in so slowly that they will not take full effect until 2018 when the cost of this $2.8 billion benefit - received by large families with high household incomes - will be just 4 per cent less.

Student loans remain interest-free but will no longer be available to people aged 55 or over, except to cover their course costs, or to part-time students for their course costs, or to those who have not met due repayments of $500 or more.

Greater savings may be found in the suspension of inflation-adjustments to the income level at which loans must be repaid, and shortening of the repayment "holiday" for borrowers overseas from three years to one.

These and other savings the Budget expects - many to be found by departmental managers - are said to amount to more than $5 billion, but $4 billion is to go straight back into new expenses, mainly in health and education.

The Government presented this Budget as a turning point from post-recession stimulus to real growth and reduction in fiscal deficits.

The Treasury believes it can bring the accounts back to balance in 2014/15, a year earlier than it last forecast. But its 4 per cent growth prediction for 2012/13 would be a sharp rise on the 1 per cent to March this year and the 1.8 per cent forecast for the current year.

The February earthquake is both blamed for the current stall and expected to provide the later boost.

But the Treasury admits to uncertainty about the earthquake's impact, and about other possible sources of recovery, a rise in wages and consumer spending and the health of the global economy after the financial crisis.

Worryingly, the Finance Minister has less to say in this Budget than his previous two about the big task facing the Government: the need to realign national investment from property and consumption to production and trade.

This Budget celebrates the settling of house prices and predicts no rise but it has nothing to say about the impact of limited measures in last year's Budget to tighten the taxation of property.

It remains all too possible, particularly in Auckland, that a return of investment confidence would rekindle old habits.

The Budget offers some alternatives, shares in the state energy companies and Air New Zealand, and an Earthquake Bond that will enable New Zealanders to lend some of the $8.8 billion the Christchurch recovery will cost them as taxpayers.

The earthquake bonds may become the enduring legacy of this Budget, a hopeful document resting on shaky assumptions.

If the ground settles and the recovery gathers pace at the predicted rate, the public finances that underpin the economy will be fine. If not, this Government or the next will need the courage to make bolder cuts.