The Budget Bill English delivered yesterday had something to say about the past, much to say about the future, but not much about the present. It required a close reading of supporting documents to discover the figures for the coming year: forecast growth of 2.6 per cent, which looks optimistic beside last year's 1.1 per cent, a fiscal deficit improving from a likely 4.1 per cent of GDP in the year now ending to 3.6 per cent in 2012-13.
The Budget therefore will add nothing to economic activity next year or in the rest of its four year horizon. Despite the currency crisis in Europe, signs of a second recession there, and a global environment Mr English described as "volatile", he is keeping his sights set steadfastly on a return to surplus in 2015 and reductions in crown debt thereafter.
There are no new capital commitments in the Budget and he says there will be none in the next four. Any new investments will need to be funded from the crown's existing balance sheet, including partial assets. The centrepiece of this Budget is a "Future Investment Fund" that will receive the proceeds of the intended floats of four state-owned enterprises and Air New Zealand.
Initially the fund will receive $559 million to make payments of previous Budget commitments such as the next $250 million towards KiwiRail's recapitalisation. The fund may be a political exercise, designed to reassure critics of asset sales that the proceeds will be spent on items of lasting social benefit, but it could be a useful account to watch.
As promised, there was no extra allocation for overall public spending either. A sum of $4.4 billion budgeted for new programmes over the next four years is supposed to be raised from cuts in present programmes and repairs of leaks in the tax net.
Quite reasonably, owners of holiday homes, pleasure boats and private aircraft will lose deductions that have been available if the assets generated any income.
That and several other measures will reap about $100 million a year, leaving $1 billion to be cut from the $70 billion spent annually on public services. The cuts will come in student allowances and other outlays that can bear them.
The Finance Minister has been careful to credit particular items to those who must vote for the Budget under their confidence and supply agreements: Revenue Minister Peter Dunne for the tax gains, the Maori Party for more punitive taxation of smoking, and Act for new requirements to be written into the Public Finance Act as a rein on future spending.
Mr English's fourth Budget repeats his belief the economy is being cured of excessive investment in housing and improving its savings, exports and productive investments but with less than his previous conviction.
As house prices rise again in Auckland and demand in Christchurch needs to be met, there seems little prospect of change in private investment preferences. The Budget instead puts its hopes, and $385 million over four years, into science and business innovation, including a new technology research institute.
Housing affordability was listed among the Budget's priorities but Mr English had nothing to offer the average young couple. The Government's attention is naturally on the rebuilding of Christchurch, the source of inflated growth forecasts in last year's Budget. A December aftershock flattened those figures but five months on, the $20 billion rebuild - "the largest and most complex project in New Zealand's history", Mr English says - brightens the Budget again.
"The euro area and the United Kingdom are going back into recession this year," he said. "The United States has low and uncertain growth [but] our outlook is more positive than most." He hopes.