Finance Minister Grant Robertson is the midwife of the PM's Year of Delivery. Claire Trevett went for a pre-Budget drive with him to check on progress, assess the wellbeing of his household budget, and find out which ministers he finds it hard to say no to.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson is standing on top of a hill looking over the Wellington Central electorate and a park bench with graffiti on it: "Cler is a [very bad word]."

"Oh look," he says, "they've spelt Claire wrong."

It was a rather brave opening gambit, given our hour-long expedition had just started.


He has been emboldened by an encounter with a man who was sitting on the bench enjoying solitude until Robertson turned up and started strutting around.

The man immediately scarpered, but not before shaking Robertson's hand and saying, "you're doing a good job."

We are on a mystery road trip of his electorate for a pre-Budget interrogation.

Hit the road, Grant: A pre-Budget drive with Grant Robertson the Minister of Finance.

The hitch with this plan is that he can not say much at all about the Budget until it is unveiled on May 30.

So he starts the trip by insisting he play loud music because it is New Zealand Music month and he is the associate minister of Arts and Culture.

A great deal of bickering ensues because thumping music is not conducive to getting clear audio of his anticipated pearls of wisdom.

He hits play and The Bats' Free All The Monsters starts playing.

"Is this about Winston Peters?" he is asked. He turns it off.

He cranks it up again as we go past Victoria University. This time it is Submarine Bells by the Chills.

"Do you feel you're going under?" he is asked. He turns it off.

After a failed attempt to trick him into revealing the contents of the Budget, the Herald decided to get payback for the graffiti witticism.

Grant Robertson gives a pre-Budget to the Wellington Chamber of Commerce. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Grant Robertson gives a pre-Budget to the Wellington Chamber of Commerce. Photo / Mark Mitchell

I asked whether he was having sun feelings or a moon feelings kind of day.

Treasury was much mocked recently after the discovery staff were being offered a wellbeing course that included questions about their moon feelings and sun feelings.

Robertson valiantly pretends this was a perfectly normal question.

"Hmm, I think it's a sun feelings day. I always like Fridays. The lure of the weekend and not having to wear a suit, which is always a good thing. Fridays are sun days."

He had no idea what sun feelings actually were, and had not even paid enough attention to bother to find out the terms were from tarot card readings.

It was, nonetheless, an unhelpful thing to happen given the forecasting system Robertson must depend on come May 30 will be Treasury rather than tarot cards.

Economy Hub: Budget Preview - Grant Robertson Interview

It will be the 'Wellbeing' Budget.

One of Robertson's jobs is to prove that it is not simply some warm, fuzzy mumbo jumbo, and that it is actually different from the Budgets of yore.

Despite not being able to talk about what is in the Budget, he manages to answer at great length every time he is asked about it without actually revealing anything.

He does this at least three times before the groaning starts from his passenger.

He ploughs on regardless. He explains the Budget will have all the usual bits – the forecasts, and surpluses or deficits, the spending, the debt.

"If you ask people, 'what do you want for your children?' they'll often say, 'well I want them to be happy and I want them to be healthy and I want them to have friends and also get a good job and earn money.'

"That's what we are trying to reflect in the wellbeing Budget - that there are more measures of success than just money."

It is also the first Budget in which he is required by law to report on child poverty measures, for instance – one of the Prime Minister's edicts.

Back in the car, Robertson is still refusing to reveal what is in the Budget so we move onto his personal household budget.

Grant Robertson is a fan of The Chills, but Submarine Bells may give him a sinking feeling. Photo / Supplied
Grant Robertson is a fan of The Chills, but Submarine Bells may give him a sinking feeling. Photo / Supplied

The old saying that a cobbler's children go barefoot comes to mind.

Robertson oversees the Budget with an iron fist. Things are clearly a little different at home.

There is the shock confession that Robertson tends to forget to pay the bills so his partner Alf Kaiwai is responsible for that side of the household budget.

Nor does Robertson know what the average weekly spend on groceries is. That too is done by Alf.

Asked if he has a domestic set of Budget Responsibility Rules pinned on his fridge, he says no but they do make careful decisions.

"We're very careful with our finances. We make sure that we've thought about what we are going to spend our money on.

We make sure we manage in-keeping with the economic conditions of the household."

That last sentence means whether Robertson is in Opposition on a salary of $160,000 or a senior minister on a salary of $289,000.

There are some signs Robertson is quite a miser, which will be music to the ears of those concerned about a big spending Finance Minister.

He keeps the supermarket receipts in case he wants to return items. He is, it transpires, a returner.

"I'd return goods that were perhaps past their expiry date, or things that were rotten."

This sparks quite a lengthy exchange about the balance between time and effort returning items and the value of said item.

Surely nobody in his position could be bothered returning something like a pot of yoghurt. Somebody in his position certainly could – or at least Alf's.

"You'd make the judgment call there, wouldn't you? But if you're going back to the place you purchased it from fairly regularly it's not that big an effort."

The miser returns a bit later when the Weekend Herald asks him for a loan of $2 to buy a bag of feijoas at a school. He conveniently forgets.

Robertson's car is also frugal – well, as frugal as a BMW X1 can be.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson with the BMW he inherited from National Party MP Judith Collins. Photo / Mark Tantrum
Finance Minister Grant Robertson with the BMW he inherited from National Party MP Judith Collins. Photo / Mark Tantrum

It has nice plush leather seats and is courtesy of the taxpayers, a 'ministerial self-drive' car when ministers do not wish to use the Crown limos.

But it is a hand-me-down from National's Judith Collins, who had the car when she was a minister.

Labour decided to use whatever was left of National's fleet, and any ministers who got new cars had to get either hybrid or electric.

The other ministers also know how miserly he can be.

He has just finished his chats with ministers, knocking back many of their wish lists for spending.

"There are always more bids than there is new money available to spend, so the process of going through the bi-laterals and triaging out and arguing whether or not things could be done for smaller amounts of money is really, really hard and not a particularly pleasant process."

The only minister he has trouble saying no to is the Sports Minister: himself.

Associate Finance Minister David Clark has the power to decide on Robertson's own spending bids in Sport. In return Robertson decides on Clark's in health.

Robertson insists he did not do things like a World Cup bid for hip-ops deal.

Other ministers include NZ First leader Winston Peters, and it must have been tempting to try to get revenge for Peters' scrapping of the capital gains tax plans.

He did not have any set-tos with Peters however.

"I'm not much of a 'set-to' person, but I certainly have had discussions with Winston as I have with all the other ministers around the things they want to do and how we're paying for them."

Labour is now working out its tax policy after dropping plans for a capital gains tax. Photo / 123RF
Labour is now working out its tax policy after dropping plans for a capital gains tax. Photo / 123RF

Ministers are also told to look through their programmes to see which ones could be cut to free up money to spend elsewhere.

Robertson does not, of course, refer to these as 'cuts' but as re-prioritising.

He reveals the next week that between them they have managed to scrounge together $1 billion.

The former National Government did exactly the same thing and when it did Labour would call them cuts. But it is now in Government so different rules apply.

Robertson can not be too miserly, given the further pressure on him: Ardern's decree of 2019 as the Year of Delivery.

Robertson is the midwife.

Some announcements – such as $200 million for homelessness – have already been made.

He says people can also expect the Budget to address some of those reports the Government had commissioned: including the mental health and addiction inquiry and the welfare expert advisory group report.

One factor that could hinder delivery is Labour's self-imposed Budget Responsibility Rules, which require it to stay in surplus and keep debt under tight control.

Robertson has turned those rules into something of a do or die issue, at least in this term, although a review of those rules is underway for the future.

He is yet to learn whether or not they will be met in this Budget because Treasury was yet to complete its forecasts.

He offers an excuse in advance in case Treasury is having a moon feelings day when they hand down those forecasts.

"We are in an interesting environment where it's quite clear that the global economy has slowed and that in turn obviously has an impact on the New Zealand economy.

"So where the Treasury end up settling in their forecasts is still to be decided."

$200m has already been set aside in the Budget to tackle homelessness. Photo / Supplied
$200m has already been set aside in the Budget to tackle homelessness. Photo / Supplied

What he can promise - in the tone of a nanny offering the castor oil - is "a healthy dose of fiscal discipline."

In terms of non-delivery, Robertson says the decision not to go ahead with a capital gains tax was the biggest disappointment for him so far.

Labour is now working out what its tax policy will be to take into 2020.

"There are lots of ways of achieving fairness and equality apart from a CGT."

We had started at Robertson's electorate office, the ground floor of an old 1970's block in central Wellington.

On the wall was a photo of former Prime Minister Helen Clark with her hands on Robertson's shoulders after his maiden speech in 2008. His office staff called it the "laying of the hands" photo.

It was just after Labour was ushered into Opposition after nine years in Government.

In those years in Opposition he stood to be Labour's leader twice without success.

Although he was the clear pick of the caucus on both occasions, he was beaten by David Cunliffe and then Andrew Little, courtesy of the vote of party members and unions.

After the loss to Little, he announced he had given up and would not contest again.

Asked if that still stood should the position become available in the future, Robertson says "yes" very quickly indeed.

The critical word there is "contest".

Were it handed to him on a plate, things might be different although this is something he does not want to entertain.

"We've got a leader of the Labour Party and a PM who I'm very confident is going to be around for a long time. And I'm very happy to be working with her in that way."

Finance Minister Grant Robertson gets a hug from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern after delivering Budget 2018. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Finance Minister Grant Robertson gets a hug from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern after delivering Budget 2018. Photo / Mark Mitchell

He does want to be Finance Minister for a long time, as his predecessors Sir Michael Cullen and Sir Bill English were.

He loves the job, and believes the changes Labour wants to make will take more than a term. That will be up to his boss, Ardern.

Robertson worked in the Beehive as an advisor to then PM Helen Clark prior to entering politics himself.

In Clark's office he got to know a fellow staffer, Jacinda Ardern. Robertson was Ardern's senior.

The two are close friends still, although the power balance has shifted somewhat.

While Robertson has some licence to argue the toss with Ardern, he is no less immune to an order than others.

"Clearly she's the boss and we all listen very carefully to the things she asks us to do."

The last stop is out at Makara, way out the end of the electorate.

It is a winding, nausea-inducing road and he tells a story of going out there, at pace, in the back of the Wellington Free Ambulance.

"When we stopped where the accident was, I was feeling very carsick. It would be fair to say I wasn't much help at that point."

He stops at the Makara Model School to check in on their hopes of expanding by having an historic school house nearby shifted to the school as an extra classroom.

Robertson wanders about wearing his High Performance Sports jacket and refusing suggestions of photo ops on the obstacle course, the flying fox, or the bike track.

The principal is not there, but a parent and board of trustees member is.

The man turns to some children: "I told you kids if you don't behave the Government will turn up, and look what's happened."

He then offers a Budget wishlist from the school.

Back in the car, Robertson regains his urge to listen to New Zealand music rather than talk about things like his household budget and his sun feelings.

He drops the Weekend Herald back at Parliament and turns up his music again.

The Weekend Herald leaves him with a handy tip to help with his more shambolic household budget management.

It is that at 3pm every Friday, Parliament's café sells its remaining pies and cakes at a knockdown price of $2 each.