Despite months of warning, National's response to Grant Robertson's infrastructure announcement on Wednesday was incoherent.
There is plenty to criticise in the detail of Robertson's big splash — including the lack of detail.
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Where there is detail, some of the so-called infrastructure investment is in fact mere capitalisation of operating spending - for example, setting up the new Mental Health Commission.
Other elements, like the schools package and hospital "asset renewal", are more catching up on deferred maintenance than creating genuinely new infrastructure. There is nothing new for drinking water, wastewater and stormwater, which are essential to support population growth and new housing, including for the new immigrants required for major new projects to proceed.
The funding for roads and rail looks set to include projects that were cancelled for ideological reasons by the Green element of the Ardern regime. Some of these are no longer "shovel ready" in the way Robertson claims.
If the Christchurch CBD experience is anything to go by, there must be deep scepticism whether the New Zealand bureaucracy is capable of running procurement processes speedily and competently enough to see any contracts awarded in anything like the time Robertson envisages. Consenting under the still unreformed Resource Management Act will cause further delays.
The likelihood of the $12 billion being spent in the four years Robertson is promising is extremely low. If Jacinda Ardern does find herself cutting ribbons before the election, it will be to open new roads planned and funded by her predecessors.
For all that, Robertson's announcement is a political triumph.
Originally associated with the Labour left or even the Alliance when a student president, the Finance Minister has managed to announce New Zealand's biggest Keynesian boom since Think Big with the backing of the business community and every mainstream economist.
Nobody was caught by surprise, except it seems the Opposition. Robertson as good as announced what was coming to the Auckland business community at the Herald's Mood of the Boardroom breakfast back in September, with National's Finance spokesman Paul Goldsmith by his side.
Under pressure from his left to spend more, it was implausible that Robertson would also ignore the demands of Auckland business leaders lying awake at night worrying about the commercial and economic implications of the infrastructure crisis.
National seems not to have spent the last three months thinking about how it would pre-empt Robertson on the infrastructure issue — or indeed, the inevitable spend-up all governments plan for election year.
Its immediate response was therefore contradictory. It rightly said its roading projects should never have been cancelled in the first place. But then it criticised the cost of now proceeding. It tried to reconcile these positions by attacking the billions Robertson has spent on Fees Free, KiwiBuild and the Provincial Growth Fund — but the latter two were underspent and are not ongoing, and no one expects National to return the money being wasted on Fees Free to the Consolidated Fund.
National broadly has two political options from this point.
First, it could base its attack on Robertson's admission that there will be an operating deficit of 0.3 per cent of GDP in 2019/2020 and that net public debt will rise to 21.5 per cent in 2021/22 before falling back to 19.6 per cent in 2023/24. This, it could argue, is a violation of Steven Joyce's 20 per cent by 2020 rule that was accepted by Labour and the Greens.
National's problem is that Joyce's rule was more a catchy political slogan — 20 per cent by 2020, geddit? — than a genuine economic policy. No serious economist would argue it makes any material difference if debt is 20 per cent, 21.5 per cent or 18.5 per cent in a certain year as long as it remains broadly under control.
Politically, not a single voter is going to think a 1.5 per cent difference is worth more than a new road in their community, especially with long-term interest rates at record lows.
If National nevertheless decides to take the view that the 20 per cent debt target is sacrosanct, it must then make the numbers add up, with Robertson playing the usual Finance Minister's game of removing fiscal room ahead of an election.
That means National would be challenged to identify specific social spending it would cut, or infrastructure projects it would scrap, or opt for the usual Opposition slogan of claiming it would cut waste and that somehow, miraculously through its very election, the economy would grow faster. Mere slogans are surely a non-starter. There is no doubt that in a battle of empty words between Ardern and Simon Bridges, the Prime Minister would be the winner.
National's second option is to accept the Mood of the Boardroom and embrace Robertson's big spend-up. Bridges' message could then turn to the area where the Coalition is politically weakest: the question of who is most competent to oversee that spending, and also any major port project.
In contrast to Labour's KiwiBuild and light rail fiascos, National can point to having competently built the Ultra-Fast Broadband network. While Labour sneered at projects like the Waikato Expressway and the so-called "Holiday Highway" to connect Auckland and Northland, National went ahead and did them, sometimes against official advice.
Progress may have been too slow on elements of the central city rebuild, but nobody doubts Gerry Brownlee did a magnificent job immediately after the Christchurch earthquakes fixing the city's drinking water, wastewater, stormwater and roading networks.
Accepting Robertson and Ardern may be on the right side of any issue may be too much for today's National strategists. But if it wants to oppose the gist of Robertson's announcement, National will also need to be prepared to oppose the voices of all its natural supporters in the business and infrastructure communities, and all mainstream economists. That doesn't seem a like a probable path to power.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland based public relations consultant and lobbyist.