Opinion: Budget offers much to sway 'Middle New Zealand'

When it comes to searching for the inhabitants of that land otherwise described by politicians in Tolkien-sounding fashion as Middle New Zealand, you need look no further than the Hastings suburb of Mahora.

Maori for ''flat land'', Mahora's somewhat limited claim to fame is that it was the boyhood home of 1970s All Black centre Bruce Robertson, along with guitarist and Split Enz founder Phil Judd, the latter's contribution to New Zealand culture these days being the adoption of his Swingers' hit Counting the Beat and its line ''Ain't no place I'd rather be'' as TV3's self-promotional jingle.

It is unlikely Judd had Mahora in mind when he wrote that song. For the suburb invites adjectives like average and stereotypical. But not necessarily because life there is ordinary or dull.

The suburb is a microcosm of New Zealand such that on election nights in the not too distant past National Radio would seize on early vote counts from the polling booth at the local primary school as an indicator of which way the country would swing.

The old Hastings seat was a classic first-past-the post marginal. It was almost a rule of thumb that if Hastings fell to the Opposition, then the incumbent Government was dead meat.

The arrival of MMP in 1996 saw Hastings incorporated in the-then new Tukituki seat, which takes in a large swath of rural Hawkes Bay voters.

At the last election, Labour did slightly better in Mahora than the miserable 27% it got across the country, picking up 30% of the party vote.

National's 42% was lower than the 47% it secured nationwide. With the Greens gaining 10% and 8% going to New Zealand First, Mahora was not wildly out of sync with the nationwide outcome.

It almost goes without saying that elections are won and lost in the hundreds of similar nondescript suburbs like Mahora. And it was to suburbs like Mahora to which Bill English's sixth Budget was unashamedly pitched.

The announcement that children under the age of 13 will get free doctors' visits and prescriptions was a political master-stroke. It is a guaranteed winner, even though it does not come into effect until July next year.

National has cottoned on to Labour's trick. Tight fiscal conditions made even tighter by National's pledge to return the Government's books to surplus meant the relatively small allowance for new spending in Thursday's Budget had to be made to look like it was going a lot further than may actually have been the case.

One ploy in these circumstances is to delay the implementation date of a new policy - something which the media often neglects to mention - or stagger its introduction so its full cost is not an immediate burden on the exchequer. Then there is the even older sleight of hand that sees new spending unveiled in four-year tranches, rather than simple annual mounts. That gambit makes it sound like the Government is committing far more cash than is the case.

The net result is the ''$500 million support package'' for families and children in Thursday's Budget sounded impressive - and along with free doctors' visits, the extension of paid parental leave and increase in the parental tax credit will do National no harm in places like Mahora.

While National is unable to deliver tax cuts - at least not any time soon - the package is being portrayed in the Beehive as the party signalling it has not forgotten middle New Zealand and understands that audience is expecting more in terms of a dividend from weathering the downturn of recent years than just the sound hand of Bill English on the economic tiller.

In fact, the package has a triple purpose - assuaging middle New Zealand and at the same time outmanoeuvring Labour by cementing National's hold on the middle ground, while showing National is tackling deprivation in general and child poverty in particular.

What is noteworthy is that both major parties are starting to eschew the standard practice of targeting assistance only to those who definitely need it. Universality is back in favour. It is all about getting more political bangs for the taxpayer's bucks in middle New Zealand.

Labour is unfazed by National's claim to territory where historically it has made the running. It has piggy-backed on to the Budget. David Cunliffe called a press conference last Monday to try to neutralise Mr English's formal unveiling of his prized surplus on Thursday by reaffirming Labour's commitment to also run surpluses in government.

Mr Cunliffe also tried to shift the economic debate by setting a target for his party of cutting unemployment from the current rate of 6% to 4% by the end of its first term.

The Labour leader's gambit failed to get much traction, but the jobless are another means for him to stoke the debate on economic inequality, one area where polls indicate that voters do not believe National's assurances that the gap between rich and poor is not widening .

And little wonder. A newly released breakdown by suburb of data from last year's census shows that during the seven years since the previous head count, the median income for those aged 15 and older in Parnell, home to the prime minister, rose $5600 to $51,400. Down the motorway in Otara, the median income fell during that period, by $1000, to $15,600.

Even allowing for the risks of using census data, the figures are stark.

But elections are not won or lost at the extreme ends of the income scale. In Mahora, the median income rose $4200 to $25,000 between 2006 and 2013. The respective figures for the country as a whole had the median income rising by almost the same amount to $28,500.

Labour's message to middle New Zealand is that its citizens will not be better off until unproductive capital is harnessed for productive use and New Zealand slowly becomes a far more innovative, value-added economy. Then - and only then - will wages and incomes rise in real terms.

National's hint of tax cuts may well prove more alluring in the short-term for those voters in Mahora and elsewhere who determine who governs.

- John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald political correspondent.

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