An economic comedy in four acts

A little pre-Christmas fun, looking at Treasury's prediction that National will fail to reach its much-promised surplus through some literary lenses

Scene I

Bill English bounces out of his Beehive bed with a surplus of energy, yet feeling rather lacklustre can only pour himself a glass of milk and drag himself to the balcony looking out over central Wellington. He glances over at the electric guitar in the corner of his room and shrugs; it's been months since he's played.

He's at a loss to know why he's feeling so in arrears, as he leans on the railing.

"O surplus, surplus! Wherefore art thou surplus?

"Deny thy father (bloody Michael Cullen) and refuse thy nominal name; or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, and I'll no longer be a rock star."

There's no reply, just the wind. Yet on the breeze it seems to Bill that he can hear an Aussie twang saying "Muldoon's record" and a mischevious chuckle murmuring "a surplus of dishonesty". So Bill speaks on:

"'Tis but thy name that is my enemy;

"Thou art thyself, though not a deficit.

"What's deficit? It is nor hand, nor foot, nor arm, nor face, nor any other part belonging to a man. O, be some other name! What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet;

"So surplus would, were he not surplus call'd, retain that dear perfection which he owes without that title. Surplus, doff thy name, And for that name which is no part of thee take all myself."

But there's no reply, except the sound of stomping from the floor above. Bill pulls on his jacket and leaves the room.


Scene II

Bill is on a school visit, helping with a spelling lesson. He reckons he spelled 'potatoes' 85 percent correct and most kids here seem to have a lunchbox, so he's in a good mood. Until, that is, a boy raises his hand and asks, "how do you spell surplus?". He sighs but laughs to himself, "I bet that boy's called David". He's not, he's called Andrew Grant. And he repeats his question:

"Sir, please sir, how do you spell surplus?"

Bill steps up to the board and write D-E-F-E-C-I-T.

Andrew Grant looks puzzled.

"I'm sure that's not what surplus looks like, sir. At least, that's not how Mr Cullen spells it, sir."

Suddenly Bill feels oh so weary of having to explain, but he knows that explaining is winning, or something like that, so he finds the words one more time:

"But these are unusual times sonny, and the conditions are unusual. It's very challenging to spell surplus another way, perhaps too challenging this year. And maybe next year as well. So while in the rest of New Zealand it might be spelt differently, here in nominal New Zealand it starts with a D. OK?"

But the children have already fallen asleep.


Scene III

It's lunchtime at the school. Bill has a meeting with the Prime Minister soon, but he has a few minutes and so sits on a wall for a rest. He's a bit rocked by his exchange with the children and, to be honest, is feeling like a bit of an egg.

A little girl called Alice approaches him.

"I don't know what you mean by surplus,' " Alice says.    

Bill smiles contemptuously. "Of course you don't—till I tell you. I meant, 'nominally and in OBEGAL terms, in an underlying, re-phased and rock solid sense, we almost have more money than we don't."

"But 'surplus' doesn't mean, well, all that ," Alice objects.    

"When I use a word," Bill says, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less. And we've got a track record of delivering on that with certainty."    

"The question is," says Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."    

"The question is," says Bill, "which is to be master—that's all... And speaking of masters, I've got to run."

Bill jumps off the wall and exits, stage right.


Scene IV

Bill sits in a chair on the 9th floor of the Beehive waiting. The door opens and John Key enters, looking not at all arrogant.

"What's this about not making surplus, Bill?" he asks. But Bill's prepared.

"It's only nominal John, no need to worry. Obegalese. And anyway, it has nothing to do with your office."

"Nothing to do with my office," John mumbles to himself, rocking back and forth. "But hang on," he adds, sitting down at his desk. "If it barks like a dog and looks like a dog, isn't it a dog?"

Bill sighs again, for what feels like the 572 millionth time today.

"Prime Minister, have I ever let you down?"

John looks up. "No, you've been reliability personified. Deficits for six years running".

Bill snaps back: "While you've been jumping around from cloud to cloud, John, I've been making sure New Zealand remains on the verge of something special."

Then he calms himself. He mustn't forget the plan he's woven.

"Have you actually seen the books, John? They do look rather wonderful. In fact, they make the government look splendid."

John perks up. "Really? We have spent so much political capital on dressing up the economy, I'd hate to go out in public or go golfing if it looked at all drab."

"Look at this," says Bill. "I call it the 'Economy's New Cut' or ENC. The budget, might I say, is the very latest cut; an elegant solution, you might say. A few nips and tucks and if we just leave out the odd stitch here and there, well, the budget looks rather good indeed, especially compared to the fashion overseas this year. And anyway, a bit tight is very stylish this year. And next year. And maybe the year after."

John raises one eyebrow. "Where's the surplus?"

"But it's right here in front of you," replies Bill. "Nominally and in OBEGAL terms, in an underlying, re-phased and rock solid sense, it's right there. Only a fool can't see it staring them in the face. Really, the fact Labour and the Greens and New Zealand First (and Treasury) can't see it just shows how unfit for office they are."

John's eyes open wide. "Oh there it is. What a masterpiece. So vibrant, so solid and carefully woven. Yes, only a fool would fail to see that. I must go and text Cam... I mean, Bronagh all about it. And then, maybe in 30 days or so, I'll tell everyone else."

He pauses. "Thank you Bill. Who needs new ideas, eh?".

Bill smiles and heads for the door. "Have a great time in Hawaii". But there's no reply; John's already sending out his textses, chanting to himself, "three more years, three more years, three more years".

Quite so, thinks Bill. And he closes the door behind him.