Whether by design or merry happenstance, Finance Minister Bill English will stand to present his maiden surplus today just two days after his counterpart in Australia delivered his Budget.

As Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey's Budget rolled out it became clear the gilt had rubbed a bit thin on the so-called lucky country and its new Liberal Government was determined to slap it back on, no matter the cost.

English's Budget date has proved a cunning use of that marketing tool known as comparative advertising.

The Australian Budget will make whatever paltry snacks English sprinkles around look like full degustation banquets. Yesterday, Prime Minister John Key was predicting a reversal of the "Lucky Country" label, claiming Australians would soon be looking over at New Zealand and sighing "oh, look at that lucky country over there: New Zealand".

Advertisement

It also proved a convenient way to rebuff questions on National's economic management, allowing him to point to Australia and claim the need for such a drastic Budget was because of the failures of the former Australian Labor Party/ Green Government.

Just as Australia dives into years of deficits, New Zealand hops out of them. Australia had rather smugly ridden high during the global financial crisis, yet in one fell swoop there were welfare cuts and tax hikes, the foreign aid budget was slashed, there were broken promises and thousands of public service job losses.

It was all a bid to turn a $43.3 billion deficit into a surplus within a decade. Australia's Budget was a frontal lobotomy by chainsaw. By comparison, English achieved his surplus by six years of precision nips and tucks. So after six years of deficits and zero or minimal spending budgets, English will stand in Parliament today holding his toothpick-slim surplus aloft, as proud as Richie McCaw with rugby's Webb Ellis Cup.

Little wonder the normally cautious English wore a broad grin when he turned up at the printers yesterday to show off the cover of his Budget and announce he was proud father to "six children and six budgets". His first five budgets popped out with deficits. Today's will be his first-born surplus following six years of hard labour.

Like children, budgets are given nicknames. In 2013, it was dubbed the "Rats And Mice Budget" or the "Licorice Allsorts Budget" by commentators. In 2012, it was described as the "Paperboy Budget" as English eyed up tiny revenue streams, the "Bubble and Squeak Budget", or NZ First's Andrew Williams' more Dickensian "Fagin Budget", because English had "picked a pocket or two".

In 2011, it was the "Zero Budget", the "Shakey Quakey Budget" or the "No Frills Budget". That was English's annus horribilis. The Canterbury earthquakes put a multibillion-dollar hole in the Budget.

His efforts managed to stave off an immediate credit rating downgrade, but in October came the "double downgrade day" as two international credit rating agencies downgraded New Zealand.

The nicknames reflect English's approach to budgets. The previous Labour Government would focus on one major new programme as a centrepiece in each of its budgets (hello the Super Fund, KiwiSaver, Working for Families, and Kiwi Bank).

Advertisement

English, faced with somewhat different times, took a salt-and-pepper approach to cuts and extra spending.

Giving himself a minuscule new spending allowance, he whittled away here and there to get his savings. He then sprinkled the resultant lolly thinly across an equally broad and sometimes surprising swathe of voters, adopting the Mary Poppins approach of providing a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.

Budgets are as much about political management as economic management, and English's bland efforts and refusal to slash and burn have made it difficult for the Opposition to tackle him.

Despite the extra challenges of the Canterbury earthquakes and the global financial crisis, English has largely resisted indulging in ideology (beyond the initial burp of tax cuts for middle- to high-income earners and the pared-down, partial asset sales programme).

He has resisted cuts to welfare, saying it was important to shield the poor against the worst extremes of the global financial crisis by maintaining welfare payments and entitlements such as Working for Families. This has helped shore up trust in National.

It may have meant there was no extra money flowing into people's pockets, but at least it meant there was none going out.

On international visits, other countries' leaders occasionally speak with some envy about Prime Minister John Key's ongoing high polling.

He just grins. He should perhaps advise them to invest in a Bill English. Key has a multitude of superstitions, the most visible being his cufflinks which he variously endows with the mystical powers of lucky or unlucky. English is possibly his luckiest charm.

English doesn't usually have time for superstition. His budget routine consists of getting a haircut. His general theory is that budgets don't happen by luck, they happen by dint of hard work.

The problem he faces tomorrow is that Australia is New Zealand's lucky charm. When Australia does well so, too, does New Zealand.

The converse of that is that when Australia does not do well, New Zealand also suffers. But today let English have his long-awaited moment. In the adjusted words of Robert Herrick's advice in To The Virgins, to Make Much of Time: "Gather ye surpluses while ye may."