Budget 2012 lays the ground for the battle of the narratives that will decide Election 2014. Yes siree, the campaign begins now, with the blame game
No-one will argue this week that Thursday's zero Budget is a good thing – not out loud, anyway. A necessary thing, a sensible thing, even a wise thing, but not something you'd take home to show your mum. Some will, however, argue that this budget amounts to a failure, and this battle over the narrative behind the numbers is the first big battle of the 2014 election campaign.
Times are tough, and have been since 2007, at least. There's little sign it'll get much better before the next election. So the crucial question is who people will blame for their travails.
That's why Greece is suddenly on everyone's lips at the moment.
Although it means nothing in Athens, of course, the failure of Greek parties to form a government is another piece of good luck for National. Who says beware Greeks bearing gifts? Not John Key and Bill English.
So long as headlines of Eurozone crisis keep appearing New Zealand voters will be reminded of two things: First, we're lucky to be in New Zealand and not in Europe because it could be worse. Second, it's all those American banks, Greek politicians and Euro-fools who are responsible for the global economic downturn, and New Zealand's own troubles are an unavoidable result of that.
In that light, National has done pretty well saving us from the worst of it, haven't they? And there's certainly a case that English's conservative economic management has taken the edge off the recession. Having learnt the political lesson of the past generation, he's resisted any temptation to follow a Richardson- or Douglas-like prescription. His cuts have been round the edges, he even used stimulus in his early years.
You can argue against where he's cut and the tools he's used for stimulus – as I have – and you can point out that he still led us to a credit ratings downgrade and sod all growth. But as many voters feel, it could have been worse and some useful savings have been made.
That's why John Key has been talking about Greece the past few days – nothing to do with economics per se, but everything to do with politics and the 2014 election. As long as voters keep blaming the Greeks, they're not blaming National.
Better still for National, the worse the situation looks now, the more triumphant will be its cry when it returns to surplus in 2014/15. Labour argues that a child could return us to surplus in the next couple of years; Key argues the Euro crisis puts it all at risk. Those are tea leaves I don't pretend to be sure of, but let's keep it real.
We rely on Asia, and Asia in part relies on Europe and the US. So in this ultra-connected world the risk of more global recession remains. On the other hand, it's no coincidence that National thinks its heroic efforts to rebalance the economy will bear fruit in 2014/15 – just in time for the next election.
Funny how the economic targets fit in so well with National's electoral goals.
Opposition parties have finally twigged that the only way to dent National's poll numbers is to pin some of the economic blame on them. Which is why David Parker's pre-Budget speech this morning was titled: Change nothing and nothing changes – Don't blame Greece!
"The National Government has dug itself into a hole with poor economic management and poor choices; asset sales would only make it worse."
In other words, it's not the Greeks, it's this lot. And there is an alternative. Whereas the austerity line now being followed by National has done nothing to solve Europe's problems, the more stimulatory approach used in the US has proved more successful – and Europe's leaders seem to be conceeding on that front.
As the mood elsewhere turns away from austerity, Labour and the Greens will try to hitch New Zealand's wagon to that 'we need growth, not cuts' narrative.
It's this debate that will mow the grass, paint the lines and roll the pitch on which the 2014 election will be played. So who do you blame? Them over there? Or them in the Beehive?