Budget '09: First impressions

Bill English's budget kept it tight, predictable and conservative. Given the times, that was a rather risky thing to do

Bill English has tried to buy some time with his budget today, but he's also bought himself a fight over superannuation and stimulus.

National's first budget since the 1990s was an underwhelming document; in urgent times it carries no sense of urgency. Take the date off it and drop it in a pile of other budgets and you wouldn't have the sense that this one was delivered in the worst economic conditions for more than half a century. This is a budget that keeps its head down, not one that propels us on the road to recovery.

You might say this budget takes the hypocractic oath: first, do no harm. It achieves that, but little more.

Curiously, it's not terribly far from the sort Labour would have delivered if it had remained in power. Around $750 million for capital spending in health, money for KiwiRail, no change to Working for Families, more prison money, plus a mini home insulation scheme and a mini science funding boost... it all sounded very familiar. (Who's to say a Labour government wouldn't have backed down on the scale of its promises by now).

Despite National press folk saying they wouldn't follow Labour's habit of leaking budget details in advance, National also followed the previous government by keeping surprises to a minimum. All of the major announcements English made this afternoon had already been leaked or hinted at in the most unsubtle terms.

With this budget the finance minister has tried to push the pause button -- holding off tax cuts, super fund contributions, significant science investment, and any structural reform -- in the hope that he can do more when times improve. The times are too uncertain now, the horses nervous under the coming storm (with due respect to Steinbeck). English has confirmed his conservative reputation and kept it tight.

It occurs to me that the 'rolling maul' metaphor might be more apt than we realised. This is a budget that keeps the economic ball in the grip of the tight forwards. English the halfback has slapped his No. 8 on the bum and told him to keep pushing, rather than grab the ball and spin it wide through the backs.

As we all knew would be the case, the tax cuts promised for next year and 2011 were "deferred". While the political power of that statement has been sucked dry by the months of hints and winks, it is a remarkable u-turn given that National re-built its popularity post-2002 on the back of the tax cuts issue. Financially, however, it was the right thing to do.

Contributions to the Super Fund have been put on hold. That too was entirely predictable, although the fact that the contributions will be on hold for as long as 11 years is a surprise. That's a lot of years not saving for a bill that has to be paid sooner or later. It's perhaps the best immediate opening for Labour politically as it will put baby-boomers on edge as they wonder exactly how their superannuation will be funded, and it risks having a de-stimulating effect on the economy if those baby-boomers restrict their spending and save more as a result.

Some might say that English should have been more honest and said that keeping the super age at 65 is unaffordable (and even unfair). But by cutting contributions for a full decade, English has hinted at just that. He's essentially buggering the fund. Surely that only makes sense if you assume that your final super bill for the baby boomers will be less than expected. He's left the hard choice for another government, but today he's made that choice almost inevitable; 65 will have to become 67.

The advantage for National was that by cutting big in two high profile areas -- tax cuts and super -- it avoided a pile of dead policy bodies littering the floor on budget day. Although it will be interesting to see over the next couple of days details of where the $500 million of "low priority spending" has been cut from. What programmes are gone?

Small business got its tax relief package earlier in the year and there will be big infrastructure spending announcements later in the year, but I'm still surprised at the lack of business-oriented spending. The finance minister ended his speech with the bold claim that National was ending a period of debt and spending and ushering in an era built on investment and exports. But, ummm, where was any mention of exports or investing in local business? Sure, The Super Fund got a one-off $250 million bundle to invest in New Zealand firms and construction businesses will profit from the $323m for home insulation and the hefty $523m for school building and expansion, but the budget didn't have a section aimed at the business sector generally or exporters in particular. Odd omissions.

What else was missing? Let's start with nothing on reform of our finance companies, which were the main villains of this New Zealand recession; no economy transforming stimulus to echo the recent budgets in Australia and the United States; and no tangible vision.

Poor old science won't quite know what to say. Labour's $700m Fast Forward scheme is gone, as we knew, and it will still be mourning that. But it will be pleased by the $321m committed, and the fact that industry will still match the government funding dollar-for-dollar. And the increase to the Marsden Fund is welcome.

As for the $385m on increasing prison capacity... what a depressing waste of money. But it honours a promise, so let's move on.

Where English will take some pride is that the country's debt track, which predicted deficits for 15 years plus, is now limited to just nine years of contraction. That's an achievement, and it sends a signal to the world that New Zealand is a stable, sensible place to do business. Cuts were needed given Treasury's deficit projections, and cuts were made. So far, so responsible.

But here's the thing. English boasted, in passing, that New Zealand's debt level will remain one of the lowest in the OECD. Given the need for fiscal stimulus as our economy shrinks and the jobs that such spending could save, is the competition for the lowest debt really one we want to be winning? Why wouldn't we allow our debt to be more average, spending more to prop up struggling businesses and keep New Zealanders in work? Economists may be able to provide a reason, but it seems unnecessary.

Finally, I'm wondering about New Zealanders who aren't especially politically focused. They'll be conscious that the tax cuts they were looking forward to aren't eventuating and asking 'so what's in it for me?' The answer? Some $1800 to insulate your home (which will prompt queues very quickly, I expect)... but that's it.There's no other takeaway in there. And for such a conservative budget, that's incredibly risky.