Hard News by Russell Brown


Budget 2018: The final tick

When Grant Robertson stands up to deliver his first Budget today, he will already have won a battle that's gone largely unremarked: the battle for his image as a credible Minister of Finance.

That might seem a low bar to meet. But when Robertson was appointed as Labour's Finance spokesperson in 2014, having lost a leadership contest to Andrew Little and then sworn off any future leadership ambitions, his qualifications for the role were a matter of debate. That was still the case going into last year's general election, when Steven Joyce loudly alleged an elementary $11 billion oversight that, had Joyce's claims been borne out, would have marked Robertson as an absolute buffoon.

But while Joyce may have been able to generate a short-term sense of uncertainty with all the shouting, his "fiscal hole" gambit had the effect of foreclosing the debate on Robertson's ability. It invited a chorus of denials from data nerds and economists that depleted the credibility not of the accused, but the accuser.

On the other hand, Joyce's fallback position: the considerably less dramatic assertion that Labour had left itself relatively little room to move in its first Budgets, was actually true. And the challenge of that fairly tight fiscal margin has been accentuated by the need to meet the demands of its coalition and support partners.

So Robertson will be bound to disappoint some of his own voters. Indeed, he has already disappointed them by repeatedly confirming his determination to adhere to the Budget Responsibility Rules Labour set itself going into last year's election. Doing so will be seen in other quarters as the last remaining tick for his credibility. He gives himself more room to move in 2020 by staying resolutely in his lane in 2018.

There's a well-worn template, established in the Clark years, for the run-up to a Budget: two months of Budget-related announcements leading up to the re-announcement of all of them on Budget day. Labour hasn't really done that – in part because it had already committed to a lot of big (and in some cases costly) policy initiatives in its first three months, and in part because it still seems to be working out its comms game.

Ironically, it's one announcement it hasn't made in advance that has become a clusterfuck. That being the ostensibly fairly straightforward information on how the $38 million in new spending for public broadcasting services will be divided between RNZ and NZ On Air. Clare Curran's games with RNZ have irretrievably politicised that decision, which is, to put it mildly, unfortunate for a Labour government. In recent days we've heard that it might only be $25 million, or that TVNZ could be a late beneficiary of the public broadcasting policy. Someone, somewhere will be howling by 3pm.

Still, after nine years of looking at the Budget line for public broadcasting services and seeing a whole lot of nothing happening, it certainly adds a bit of excitement.

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