Some have always reckoned National's target of surplus by 2014-15 was "fairyland", but oh no said John Key and Bill English, don't you worry. Now Alan Bollard has joined the naysayers, National has to realise just what's at stake

John Key seemed to shrug it off as if he'd promised New Zealand pudding, but now wasn't sure whether or not he'd have time to whip something up.

“I'm now a little less confident of reaching a surplus,” after hearing that no-one less than the Reserve Bank Governor Alan Bollard had forecast New Zealand wouldn't return to surplus until 2016/17, rather than the 2014/15 National has been promising for the past year or so.

While class sizes, mining conservation land and increasing GST may have been the most prominent u-turns by this government thus far, none has been as central to the government's platform as this. Of course it's not a u-turn yet; 2014 is still two years off and National could always, say, sell another power company or lay off more public sector staff to help it get over the line.

But to have the Reserve Bank saying you're not longer "on track" and be forced to admit doubts about the 2014/15 deadline, well, it's a long way from this government's previously confident rhetoric.

It was only May when John Key was boasting in a statement that "the National-led government's responsible management of the books means an operating surplus is set to be posted in 2014-15."

He said:

"Returning to surplus means we can start reducing debt. That is no small achievement. It has taken a combination of disciplined fiscal policy and a willingness to make trade-offs. We have a plan to rebuild and strengthen the country, we have stuck to it and it is working."

Bill English told the House in February:

"We have committed to a faster return to surplus in 2014-15..."

And he's repeated how it's the governments "focus" on numerous occasions.

Why is this economically so important? Several reasons, according to National. Only when debt is reduced will our credit rating be safe, and only then will the government be able to lift national savings, be able to protect New Zealand from any future global financial crisis, and make choices about expenditure increases.

Saving into the Super Fund? Not until surplus. Longer paid parental leave? Wait for a surplus? Even anything to help those most in need must wait, English has said:

"Governments with too much debt cannot sustain support for their most vulnerable."

And now that surplus could be coming two years late. That raises some uncomfortable questions, such as whether the vulnerable are now also vulnerable to government cuts, if a third zero Budget is likely and if our credit rating and low interest rates are now more at risk. It means much more than just missing dessert.

And it matters for political, as much as economic, reasons. Why? Because it goes to the heart of National's brand as competent economic managers. Remember John Key taunting Phil Goff during the election campaign with his "show me the money" line. Voters sure did.

When John Key launched National's finance policy on October 31, he said:

"National has a straightforward and comprehensive plan to build a more comprehensive economy. First, we're balancing the books sooner by getting back to surplus in three years".

Faced with recession behind them and uncertain times ahead, many voters decided to stick with the old car/house/fridge/whatever... and with the old government as well; safer pair of hands, y'know.

Labour by comparison was painted as the party of unreliable tax and spenders, what with its tax-free zones and the like. On Q+A last November, just six days before the election Key was hammering home his central campaign message:

"Do we want $15.6 billion worth of extra debt from Labour, or do we want to be back in surplus by 2014-15 under National?"

When it was pointed out that most business leaders were sceptical of his ability to meet that target, Key went onto ask, "why do people think that's fairy land?".

And before you say, 'what about Europe?', Key already recognised that risk (and had for some time, given it's been going on since 2009).

"Yes, okay, if Europe blows up, maybe that's an issue, and that obviously has an impact. We're not immune from what happens in the world, but our numbers have been adjusted to reflect that there's weakness in Europe. They match the IMF numbers."

So National had adjusted their numbers for European weakness and would still get us back to surplus "faster" and "sooner".

Except now even the Reserve Bank thinks it won't.

If you're wondering just how much that hurts politically, consider this quote from Bill English, talking to the Herald a few days before the Budget:

"With the huge public market for fiscal control, the surplus figure became during the campaign the symbol of responsibility".

So a 2014-15 return to surplus was at the top of National's finance policy – their own target – and even English recognises it as a "symbol" of responsible economic management.

So National's new uncertainty has to shake its brand as the party of responsible stewardship, led by the rich guy who knows about money and the steady-as-she-goes Southland farmer. No, it's not something people will march in the street about or even articulate very easily, but it undermines voter trust and confidence in this government, something that's vital to people's gut feelings about who they'll ultimately vote for.

As we all know, governments lose elections, opposition parties seldom win them. And governments look like losing when people lose confidence in them.

If National fails to deliver its promised surplus, it undermines one of the most basic reasons Kiwis have for voting National, beyond their fondness for John Key. It opens the door to voters saying, 'this lost hasn't done the job, perhaps the others are worth a shot'.

Comments (12)

by Ian MacKay on June 24, 2012
Ian MacKay

However in the end, should the target not be met, Mr Key will blame the last Labour Government and the bolt out of the blue from Europe errr and China and errr um Fiji? Not his fault don't ya know!

Pretty awful Catcha!! 3rd go.

by nommopilot on June 24, 2012

that's right, Ian.  it's annoying that they were never held responsible for the constant, incessant braying for tax cuts just prior to the GFC that saw Labour fritter away the last surplus just before the excrement collided with the air circulation mechanism...  They didn't think surplus was such a desirable state when Clark/Cullen were running one.


also concur on the captcha - almost unreadable by humans, let alone highly advanced spambots like myself

by Andre Terzaghi on June 24, 2012
Andre Terzaghi

And if you aren't actually in the midst of selling off capital assets and misrepresenting the proceeds as "income", the surplus is going to be even harder to achieve because actual honest dividend income is going to be lower. A lot lower than the interest on the extra debt that would have been taken on to keep the assets.

by Graeme Edgeler on June 25, 2012
Graeme Edgeler

2014 is still two years off and National could always, say, sell another power company or lay off more public sector staff to help it get over the line.

Selling another asset would push them further from the line.

by Mr Magoo on June 25, 2012
Mr Magoo

"Selling another asset would push them further from the line."

 In the long term yes. In the short term it may get them their bullet point.

And this government has always been a short-term focussed government. A "who needs evidence" government. A "what do the experts really know after all" government.

Much as I repeatedly pointed out years ago (starting from their election) to the denial and sometimes denigration of others.

How is that working out for you know? I see the tone of the posts and comments here has took a while...

 (Yes, this is an "I told you so".) 

by stuart munro on June 25, 2012
stuart munro

Ultimately, National's self-discrediting will serve NZ, though the hole they're digging with asset sales sure won't. Winston has the easy answer. Use the superfund to buy back assets at cost. If you think the public are angry at the selling of partial stakes, see how ballistic they become when those assets are the retirement fund.

by DeepRed on June 25, 2012

And I've said it before, but Shearer and Norman et al can drive down the costs of buying back the power companies just by setting the Commerce Commission loose on them. Or "unbundling" them.

by Tim Watkin on June 25, 2012
Tim Watkin

Magoo, you beat me to it in reply to Graeme – this is short term stuff we're talking about here. The wider context is that our debt is heading north in five to ten years anyway as we pay for those bloody ageing baby boomers!

But what 'tone' are you referring to and whose posts? I think you'd find a fair bit of critical analysis of this government a few years back. I've been pretty consistent, I think, in recognising that its economic management could have been much worse overall, but pretty picky about the specifics, such as limiting the stimulus to tax cuts, stopping saving for the Super Fund, short-sighted partial asset sales, and not investing more in science, R&D and the like – not to mention the extreme ends of the welfare reform, wobbly foreign policy and so on.

As for using the Super Fund to buy them back... well, National's using the Super Fund to help privatise the 49%, with the Fund expected to buy a chunk of the shares. Not that I've read more than the Herald on this, but the Fund owning them is not the same as government ownership; it's a private, independent owner.

And if the Fund buys them and just hands them back to the govenrment, that's super savings down the drain. It'd require the government ordering the Fund to spend a certain way, which would mean changing legislation and undermining the whole scheme, probably at the expense of the CEO and board all quitting. So can someone explain how that's a good thing, either way?

by Tim Watkin on June 25, 2012
Tim Watkin

And sorry about the captcha thingmany. I agree it's too hard. I've asked out maintenance folk to improve it, but they're on holiday at the mo. So you'll jut have to live with it a wee while, sorry.

We're just trying to get rid of the trolls and folk selling football jerseys and handbags, who target us for our high goggle rating. Sigh. Sorry again and thanks for persevering.

by stuart munro on June 27, 2012
stuart munro

There are several good reasons for NZ superfunds to buy out profitable privatised state assets.

  • It keeps the cashflow within New Zealand.
  • These are predominantly utilities, and so provide a steady income stream.
  • If they become commercially uncompetitive, by offering cheaper electricity for example, then it continues to achieve their social ends by lowering the cost of living.

Being a basically sensible idea, and in the public interest will of course be quite sufficient to guarantee that neither Labour nor National will have a bar of it. I don't like Winston - he's the kind of guy we need to eliminate by limiting parliamentary terms - but he's onto something sensible for once in his trivial life.

by Andrew Geddis on June 27, 2012
Andrew Geddis

"And sorry about the captcha thingmany. I agree it's too hard."

Point taken and change made ... but note that it has had the effect of radically reducing the amount of spammed comments advertising everything from ugg boots to discount drugs we were getting on a daily basis. These were taking literally hours every week to remove - or else clogging up the comment threads like didymo in a pristine alpine river. So, swings and roundabouts, I guess.

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