After a week of housing issues dominating the leadup to the Budget, the Government's attempt to salvage its Budget Day was launched so hastily even the Finance Minister was oblivious.
It started with Prime Minister John Key using his morning media slots to dampen expectations that housing was the central focus of the Budget. Then Social Housing Minister Paula Bennett rocketed it, announcing hastily compiled measures to address homelessness. That included up to $5000 grants for homeless people who chose to move from Auckland to a region and fast-tracking grants for those who were put into emergency housing such as motels.
Bennett also promised to dispatch night-time 'flying squads' of emergency housing providers to find people living in cars and garages and ensure they were on the social housing register. The announcement was so hasty that Finance Minister Bill English did not know it had happened when questioned by media an hour later. That is partly because it was not technically a Budget measure, Bennett still has one on social housing to come. But it was clearly aimed at taking some of the heat out of the issue.
It is rare for Opposition pressure to push the Government to buckle and this time it did so in spectacular fashion. After days of unrelenting attention on the issue, the penny had clearly dropped within National that expectations were high the Budget would deliver.
The reaction makes it clear National also realised those expectations would not be met. That carried the high risk that a fail-to-deliver on housing would dominate coverage of the Budget.
Ironically, the focus on homelessness was sparked by Bennett's earlier pre-Budget announcement of $41 million to fund 3000 places for emergency housing. The Opposition and media went out and found people living in cars, tents and caravans. It was a rare mishandling of an issue by Bennett who underestimated the concern and even bungled her own announcement by implying it was for extra places. That forced her into giving a correction in Parliament, making it look as if she did not know her own policy. Bennett was on a mission to clean up the mess, preferably in time to put the issue to bed before the Budget. The Government cannot afford to have what the Budget does deliver overshadowed by what it does not deliver.