Key Points:

Maybe it was a sign that manufacturers are too stressed to go out for lunch, or perhaps it was an indication that Finance Minister Michael Cullen's pulling power is well and truly drying up.

Whatever it was, yesterday's traditional pre-Budget speech to Canterbury's manufacturing and exporting community did not feel good for Labour.

Just 36 table places were set for the meal when Dr Cullen arrived at Christchurch's Chateau on the Park - fewer than half the number who heard him the year before.

The visiting media contingent momentarily thought they were in the wrong place until they were assured that the man who will deliver his ninth Budget next week would be speaking.

Apparently organisers had a hard time getting the manufacturing association's members to come along.

A ticket to the lunch cost $95 for members and $196 for non-members, according to a website advertisement.

It was the worst turnout in the eight years Dr Cullen has been finance minister but he still tried to make the best of the somewhat flat atmosphere.

Unfortunately, there was little in the way of news in the speech.

Dr Cullen sometimes sounded like he was preparing to farewell the spotlight when he referred to all the things Labour had done since it came to power in 1999.

Even when he talked about the tax cuts he will deliver next week, it was in a way that suggested people shouldn't be expecting much.

Dr Cullen did address the future, though, later in his speech.

Under a sub-heading of "Plan for the future", he talked about the buy-back of the rail system, a big broadband announcement in the Budget, and further announcements under the tagline "innovation".

He talked about building on a skills strategy and the need for businesses to improve productivity.

But even when he reeled off a $33.5 million Canterbury transport investment, the audience didn't appear to flinch.

Just some polite clapping after a relatively low-key lunch.

Questions were already being asked by some commentators about whether the voters' "phone is off the hook" for Labour.

More are likely to be asked following yesterday's lunch.

* Paula Oliver is a Herald political reporter.