QOTD: The real theme of the Budget

Wonderfully summed up by my comrade mickysavage over at The Standard:

As the dust settles a few themes are appearing.

National agrees that child poverty is an urgent issue but it has delayed implementation of measures until April next year.

National hates doing anything that lets us provide for our future.

National lied about “no new taxes”.

National is underfunding health and education.

National is doing nothing about our future and has a series of band aids being applied to urgent political issues.

This is the thing about Budgets. They’re basically a gigantic series of press releases (almost literally a gigantic series of press releases as anyone who was subscribed to the Scoop politics RSS feed last week could tell you). The government will always get the first turn at framing what their Budget contains, and even the best-resourced Opposition or press gallery in the world aren’t going to be able to tell you, on Budget Day, which bits are accurate and which bits are flagrant spin.

Like that much-vaunted $25 per week for beneficiary families, as outlined by Gordon Campbell:

That headline figure for the increase in benefits was misleading. No-one will get an extra $25. The real figure is a maximum of $23 in the hand when the simultaneous (and miserly) deductions in income-related rents and other forms of assistance is factored in. By late last night, Work and Income were clarifying that these abatement rules meant that many beneficiary families would receive an increase more in the nature of $18, and some families would receive nothing extra at all. Moreover, the figures seemed plucked out of the air, rather than based on any research into existing levels of need. Plus, the relief is deemed to be so urgently needed it won’t actually arrive for another eleven months.

That being said, this isn’t an extreme rightwing Budget. And that tells us a lot about the National Party’s state of mind. At least on paper, in their own framing, they’ve had to backflip on core National Party ideas like “crushing every last ounce of dignity out of beneficiaries” and the days of trying to paint KiwiSaver as “communism by stealth” are long gone (they’re just going to pretend not to be chipping away at it).

This isn’t what a third-term government’s budget is supposed to look like, and statements like this abhorrent one from Nick Smith show very clearly that National hasn’t suddenly had a massive change of heart. This is a government which can see things just aren’t going to get better for it as their third term grinds on. The daydreams of being the first party in an MMP environment to have an absolute majority (without needing to prop up sockpuppets in key seats) are over.

The challenge for the Opposition is to point out the reality – the superficial nature of National’s promises and the little tells like delaying changes to benefits while rushing through more cuts to KiwiSaver – and present an alternative. A government which actually cares about everyone and wants to use power to make a real difference in people’s lives.

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.