The Standard & Poor's Budget

Bill English's third Budget has laid foundations. For a couple of short-term goals, in particular. But what's the point if those foundations are being undermined even as they are laid?

In his barn-storming, even cocky, address to the House yesterday, John Key let slip what this budget was really all about - twice. Was it growing the economy? No, that's not the work of conservative governments. Was it saving jobs? Nope, that was last year's message. Was it savings, as he had promised it would be in his address to parliament in February? Not that either, as it turned out, as total national debt will hardly be touched by this strategy.

No, the PM never spoke a truer word when he said, "Phil Goff might not like it, but Stanard and Poor's does". Much of this budget was written to satisfy the credit ratings agencies.

And the second revelation. When Key ended by looking across at Goff, saying, "see you on the campaign trail". Because the other purpose of this budget was to satisfy voters just enough to ensure a second term.

So for me, the S&P headline sums it up. Bill English's third budget utterly political and just as utterly focused on keeping the feathers of the foreign money lenders unruffled. It is a Budget for the short-term.

But the words work on other levels as well. What we saw yesterday was utterly standard fare for a National government - orthodox, conservative and a budgetary child only an accountant could love. Poors? Well, it it did little to address the growing inequality in this country inspired by the tax cuts of recent years. It had next-to-nothing to say about how a government can help a country grow rich.

And while it addressed the poverty in the government's books, with its cuts to achieve surplus, it did nothing to address the red ink in the bank accounts of households all over the country. A potential surplus in these times is nothing to sniff at. But I wrote at the start of the week, government debt is not the problem. Your debt and my debt is. And by the figures in the Budget, our net national debt is still 85% of GDP and rising by 2015.

So much for Key's promise in February that reducing "our dependence on foreign lenders" and building "up the pool of Kiwi-owned savings and investment" would "be the focus of this year's Budget".

On one hand, I can appreciate the standard practicality of some measures. Low interest rates, low taxes, low government debt do make it easier for businesses to grow. Government accounts were always going to be reduced as money went into propping up the economy during a huge recession and paying to re-build our second largest city. No amount of wishful thinking can ignore the cost of Christchurch; as English and Key both said, at 8% of GDP it is proportionately more expensive than Japan's rebuild (5%) and indeed any other disaster that anyone can remember.

So it's reasonable to assume the some savings and "reprioritisations" are needed and admirable that we can pay off debt so quickly (if the forecasts pan out). Increasing individual and business contributions to KiwiSaver, for example? Good, we want to grow that pot. Remember in Australia they're raising contributions from 9% to 12%. Cutting government contributions temporarily makes sense, if the alternative is higher interest rates. So is pushing to get more student loans paid back.

And our low wages remain our biggest handicap, so if wages can increase by 4% a year, then well done to that government.

What must also be applauded is that this government has resisted the temptation to use the cover of bad times to cut further and faster. We all remember the 'mother of all budgets' and the days when jobs, savings and re-investment were sacrificed on the alter of productivity. Yes, this is a cautious government, but better cautious than brutal, and at least the poorest aren't the worst affected this time.

I'm also intrigued by the potential of the widely-ignored Local Government Funding Agency, which will provide a centralised, co-operative body to raise money for local bodies at a cheaper rate than they could achieve individually. A most un-ACT-like ACT policy.

So, some good foundation blocks. The problem is that they're being laid on the muddy bog of National's previous tax cuts, which slashed government revenue at a time it needed it most. As Jim Anderton said yesterday, the government is borrowing $2.5 billion a year to give tax cuts to just the top ten percent of earners.

Having not learnt the importance of government revenue to, y'know, build and run stuff, the government is now set to pour more water into that bog by partially selling the highest-earning state assets. Those 49% sales will leave the government worse off in the long-term for the sake of a short hit of $5-7 billion.

What's more, the decision to end the days of government stimulus means that while our national house might be nothing more than a foundation. Is the private sector ready to start the building without the government stumping up for some of the bricks and mortar? Maybe, but it's a punt.

That's what makes no financial sense to me. Yes, you can ask where on earth the public sector is going to find $1b in savings and what happens if the politicians don't like what the CEOs choose to cut. Yes, you can point out that the assumed figures are perhaps "heroic". Yes, you can argue that the middle folk cop the flak yet again.

But none of that deals with how we grow as a country. It lacks, to use National's word, ambition.

Because if we can't save and invest in this country, if we can't grow exports and wages, if we can't protect government revenue and therefore public services, we can't keep our assets and do something about the growing costs we face in our daily lives, then those foundations will simply sink into the mud.