The surplus lie

Andrew Little delivered his pre-Budget speech in Wellington yesterday, and the pullquote everyone’s talking about was some seriously no-nonsense stuff:

…[National’s] promise was clear. Their good economic stewardship would see us in surplus.

And now they’ve abandoned their promise.

National’s talk now is about how achieving surplus was an “artificial target” and that getting a surplus is “like landing a 747 on the head of a pin.” A lot of effort has gone into glossing over the broken promise. But I see it for what it is – one of the biggest political deceptions in a lifetime.

You can quibble the semantics, of course – is it not really a lie if Treasury figures predicted we’d be in surplus? Or is it still a lie because Treasury’s predictions are often laughably optimistic and wrong (when National is in power, anyway)? But come on, whose word can we rely on regarding the Budget if not Treasury’s?

The room to quibble is what makes it a lie.

Balancing a government budget is nothing like balancing a chequebook, and not just because ordinary citizens can’t print their own money at will. There are so many moving parts, so many tricks, so many points which can be manipulated ever so slightly

That’s why it was ridiculous for Bill English to say even a $1 surplus would count as “significant“. When you’re managing nearly $100 billion in revenue and spending, there’s infinite room to tinker. You can make all kinds of assumptions about how much tax will be collected. And we’ve seen the tinkering: the delay in lowering ACC levies. The interest-free “loan” to the NZTA which conveniently counts as an asset, not spending. The assumed cuts to EQC’s insurance liabilities.

The lie isn’t really about whether-we-achieve-surplus or whether-we-don’t. The lie is everything that National’s constant promises of surplus implies: that a surplus is objectively good; that a surplus proves their superior economic management abilities (but a deficit is all Labour’s fault; they had nine long years to deliver surpluses for Bill English); that a surplus proves things are back on track, the economy is doing fine, things can’t be that bad – so obviously inequality’s a myth, there’s no housing bubble, Christchurch is hunky-dory, we don’t need state houses or workers’ rights or any of that rubbish, and if you’re very, very good you’ll get jam tax cuts tomorrow.

A surplus proves National are right about everything.

That’s the lie we’ve been sold, time and time again, by this government. And given the harm it has done and is doing to the New Zealanders who can’t afford a first home, much less an investment property, who can’t find secure employment or buy the kids a new pair of winter shoes, who are living in cars and queuing for foodbanks at 3am – I don’t think it’s too strong to call it one of the biggest political deceptions of our lifetime.

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