I normally listen to annual Budgets with great concentration and attention to detail.

Last Thursday, however, I was busy preparing an application aimed at greatly extending the Howard League's driving offenders' initiative, so was more like any normal voter and got fuzzy impressions of what was intended by the Labour-led Government and National's response.

For my money there were two winners.

The first clear winner was the Finance Minister, Grant Robertson.


A new government is like a play that runs backwards. The audience – you and me – are introduced to the characters en masse at the swearing-in ceremony which is like what happens at the end of a play, then the drama unfolds as we meet the characters one at a time when the focus goes on them.

This week the spotlight was on Grant Robertson.

Deadlines and the commitment I mentioned above mean I'll save most of my comment on the substance of this Budget until another day and instead focus on the characters rather than the storyline.

It must be pointed out, though, that the just-announced Budget must be read in tandem with the "family package" announced last December, where a number of initiatives spent the cash saved by cancelling the National Party's proposed tax cuts on significant assistance to the neediest.

With this week's Budget focusing on health, education and housing it can safely be classified as a traditional Labour Party Budget and those who have followed Grant Robertson's career could not have been surprised.

Born into a Labour Party family, Robertson was Head Boy at his Dunedin high school and studied political science at Otago University where he had his first political success running for office in the Otago and New Zealand Students Associations.

After his graduation he was selected for a job by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and within a few short years was managing significant New Zealand Aid Programmes in the Pacific Islands.

I first became aware of him when he became a ministerial adviser to Marian Hobbs MP, Minister for the Environment and the MP for Wellington Central.


He was then head-hunted, probably by the formidable Heather Simpson, and moved up to become a prime ministerial adviser to Helen Clark.

Robertson made known his interest in the Labour Party nomination for Wellington Central when Hobbs announced her impending retirement from politics in 2007.

At first there were two nominations for the seat and I, as president of the party, was keen to see a contest for the nomination.

The Wellington Central electorate at that point was a reasonably secure one for Labour but it had a history of marginality and with the electorate tiring of the Clark Labour government after nine years and John Key looming large on the political horizon, I knew it would be difficult to hold the seat with a new candidate.

In the event, Robertson quickly built unassailable support amongst the local Labour Party members and the other candidate saw the writing on the wall and dropped out of the race.

Robertson easily justified the faith of his large band of local supporters and he held the seat well in 2008 with a majority of just under 2000 votes, which he has now built up to a nearly 10,000-vote margin over four elections.


But for a quirk of history, Grant Robertson would be the Leader of the Labour Party and perhaps Prime Minister.

For nearly all of its history, the party selected its leader by a simple vote of its MPs. In recent years, however, the elections which produced David Cunliffe then Andrew Little as party Leaders involved not just the Labour MPs, as all previous elections had, but the wider party membership and its affiliated unions.

In both of those leadership elections, Robertson attracted majority support from the MPs and under the previous rules would have been the leader. This equates to the verdict of the people who know him best.

Chances are that the more you see of him, the more you'll like him. There is human warmth about the bloke that transcends political divisions and his performance this week can only translate into a solidifying of support for his party.

The other clear winner was Judith Collins. The National Party's immediate response to the Budget was so weak and misguided that the party will be reviewing its leadership.

Simon Bridges responded to the Budget speech with a spluttering address unrelated to what he'd just heard. It was delivered in some unfathomable accent.


National's finance spokeswoman, Amy Adams, gabbled something equally incomprehensible at a camera.

Judith Collins' moment just drew a little closer.

• Mike Williams grew up in Hawke's Bay. He is CEO of the NZ Howard League and a former Labour Party president. All opinions are his and not those of Hawke's Bay Today.