Bill English has staked his reputation on boring budgets. Every year, since National came to power, Mr English has quietly foreshadowed the few interesting pieces of additional expenditure, and then delivered a “steady as she goes” budget that has provoked little ire from either Left or Right.
The problem for National’s political opponents has always been that no funding cuts have been dramatic enough to raise eyebrows. Over the years, English has called for greater efficiency throughout the public sector, which has largely been delivered without any appreciable downside to the general population. Middle management jobs have disappeared throughout the government bureaucracy, but National has been careful to try and keep frontline jobs intact. After all, frontline jobs are the ones that middle New Zealand actually see.
The Left has continually predicted that spending cuts and reallocations of funding would result in catastrophic failures of service. The problem has always been that the cuts simply weren’t large enough for the Left’s rhetoric to gel with the public. And, of course, the sky hasn’t fallen, making the continued predictions of doom seem more than a little like the Boy Who Cried Wolf.
And the whole time, John Key and Bill English have been working towards their much-vaunted budget surplus, which is just about to be delivered. It may be wafer thin, but it allows them to say, “Trust us – we’ve done exactly as we promised”.
But there’s one other big reason why Mr English will be able to happily deliver yet another boring budget – Australia. While Key and English can revel in the glow of “Steady as she goes” fiscal prudence, voters just need to look across the Tasman to witness Joe Hockey’s so-called “Budget of Pain”, which is being attacked from all sides as vicious and unnecessary. As the Chinese curse goes, “May you live in interesting times”. Compared to the interesting times going down in Australia, it’s hard to see how middle New Zealand is going to give another boring budget anything other than a seal of approval.