Is it enough? Budget 2017 dissected

It's a Key-less budget giving National a new selling point... an Election Year Budget... and a Catch-Up Budget. And it's a budget that starts the thaw after the frozen years. But is it enough for New Zealand and New Zealanders? 

This was a budget almost three terms in the making. Budget 2017 is the culmination of Bill English's determined commitment to surpluses and his ethos that the public sector should do "more with less". This is the year he finally gets to say, 'hey, now you can do more with a bit more'.

On one hand, it feels like the end of something. National has long pitched itself as the brave battler tossed around by the winds of global economic turmoil, making sure New Zealand punches above its economic weight. But it could only do so much and we shouldn't expect too much because, well, just look out there. In its narrative, the Global Financial Crisis has never really ended. 

Until now. Today, it opened the curtain, let in some sun and admitted that the government can and must act. And so in another way, this Budget feels like a start of something: The post-Key era.

Budget 2017 – the Key-less Budget – is perfectly timed for a third term government which as lost its star act; instead of selling competence with a sprinkle of John Key stardust, National will now sell the message of a social dividend after the hard years. Without Key to show "heart", the party's "head" – in the form of Bill English and Steven Joyce – is using policy and spending to show National cares and hasn't gone all boring and businessy without ol' JK.

It means Joyce can't use his favourite lines about big spending Labour as liberally, because long years of frozen budgets are over; the thaw is own. This is National 2.0.

There's no doubt the spending is there and New Zealand will be better off for it. Nearly all sectors and New Zealanders get something. An estimated 1.3 million families get some extra money in their pockets. And it's done in the most logical way – raising thresholds.  

Sure, it's somewhat regressive. But it's hard to argue thresholds shouldn't go up over time, as wages grow. Sure, you can argue that the rich to better out of the tax reforms. Someone on $15,000 a year will only get $1.50 a week, Tracy Watkins has noted, while Grant Robertson was saying someone on six figures like him, will get around $35 a week. But Joyce merely needs to point to the accommodation supplement to say the poor get their share that way. Something for everyone.

So this is an Election Year Budget. The "family incomes package" is designed to tick all the boxes Steven Joyce's campaign manager (oh, that's right, it's him) would want. It's created with campaign lines front of mind, such "putting money into the pockets of those at the bottom" or "sharing the benefits of growth". And if you put the parts of the package together, Opposition parties can't bring out the old lines about a 'chewing gum' or 'block of cheese' budget. Tick and tick.

Heck, the entire Budget provides retort after retort to National's critics. "34,000 new houses" (well, maybe 24,000); "increased spending on mental health"; "investing in public services"; and so on.

Politically, it's designed to give National a new key selling point after Key. It comes stamped with "election" all over it. You've wait to wait until April 1 2018 for some goodies, but even further through to 2020 for others. This largesse is conditional.

And that's where National's – English's? – conservatism may be risky. It's served him well for a long time, but as the economists have worked their way through it this afternoon, they seem to be saying that the spending increases, while carefully spread, are spread thin and across four years. I would have thought that the one thing Joyce wouldn't do today is leave himself in a position where he might sit down over a beer on September 24 and think, "bugger, I wish I'd done more". Yet he's done just that. He could have undoubtedly promised greater spending, especially beyond 2018, which gives Labour and the Greens some headroom to out promise them.

In that way he's retaining some of the fiscal discipline National has built its name on. Yet at the same time, ACT's David Seymour can reasonably argue that National has lost touch with its roots. This is a budget that must have driven Ruth Richardson and Don Brash spare.

This fifth National government certainly has a knack for triangulation; it seems to be able to do mutiple things at once (eg increase spending while still projecting a sense of discipline). Just consider that after today, National will keep saying there's no problem with anything – housing, homelessnes, mental health, and poverty for example – while out of the other side of its mouth whispering, "look, we're doing something about it".

In economic terms, this is a Catch-Up Budget. The cry for more money to DHBs, emergency services, Pharmac, transport, family violence has finally been answered. In part.

The money going into public services is like a fall of rain on parched ground. But here's the big question we're left with: Is it enough?

Can a government really make up so many years of under-funding in one, still relatively conservative, burst? Well no, of course not. I often find the 'down ticket' budget speeches the most interesting, and this year Peter Dunne's nailed it.

Dunne said this was some payback after six years of steady growth, and that six years was one of the longest growth periods in New Zealand's history. It only goes to show, he said, how fragile this all is. Will we really get four more growth years, as Treasury predicts? Who knows, but his argument was that National has to exploit this window of opportunity, not just in one Budget, but "year in, year out" while the surpluses remain.

He pointed out that parliament has talked about our infrastructure deficit for years. It's deep. So National mustn't fall into the trap of saying "we've done that now". The building must go on.

Now there's some wisdom. National has almost unforgiveably refused to use this period in history of low interest rates and spare capacity and hasn't made hay while the sun shines. Its infrastructure spend has been criminally low. Today's effort alone is no catch-up.

I'd argue you could also call it the Wrong way Round Budget. Spending has been capped and infrastructure ignored while the government was relying heavily in immigration for its growth. Now that the tax revenue from all those new migrants is starting to help the books look flush, National is starting – starting – to spend significantly on more houses, roads, schools and social services that the larger population so desperately needs. But wouldn't a wise government do it the other way round – build the house before moving the family in? 

One more point on National's conservatism. Joyce had a section of his Budget speech sub-titled 'Resilience'. It argued for the remarkable target – and it should be very controversial one at that – of reducing New Zealand's net debt to 10-15 percent of GDP by 2025. That's on from the current target of 20 percent by 2020.

Wealth manager Grant Cleary told RNZ that the average net debt of the world's richest countries is currently 70 percent. We are the only nation determined to not spend to this extent. Joyce argues it's the wise choice in case of another rainy day. We'll be ready for the next crisis, he says.

But what sort of resilience do we want? His fiscal resilience? Or do we want our social services to be resilient too? Do we want to invest in the reslience of our people by helping more of them get well, get trained and get around? Do we want to build a thriving economy with more diverse and connected companies which are able to stand up to Joyce's crisis?

For me, this is where the tension lies. Will voters accept that these are rewards after the tough times? And if so, are the rewards sufficient? Did they expect more than Budget 2017 delivered after almost three terms? Or have enough small itches been scratched to earn National a crack at another three budgets?