Chasing the mini Budget prize

The longer that forming a new government takes, the more that serious business is being left in the undone or too hard pile.

Prime Minister-elect Christopher Luxon has already had to forgo an important trip to the US for the Apec summit as his self-acclaimed negotiation skills have yet to seal a deal for him to drop the word "elect" from his expected title.

The continued delay now also raises questions about whether the centrepiece of National’s first 100 days agenda, a mini Budget, is actually achievable.

A last-minute mini Budget is not unprecedented: in 2017 Grant Robertson introduced one on December 14, but that year the new Parliament had started sitting on November 7.

Although Parliamentary Services is an efficient organisation, it will take time for all the preparations for the 54th Parliament to be formally sworn in to be made, whensoever that might be.

The original, pre-election, calendar for Parliament had just two more sitting blocks marked out, from November 28 to December 7, and from December 12-21.

The first day of whichever block the House resumes in will be taken up with swearing members in and electing a Speaker.

The second day is the State Opening, and business such as the Governor-General’s speech, reinstatement of business and the Address in Reply debate will need to be dispensed with before the House can get down to actual work.

Even if you asssume that a government is formed today, the likely finance minister Nicola Willis will have precious little time to set up her eighth-floor Beehive office, let alone draft, deliver and pass a complex suite of fiscally significant legislation.

National's financial spokesperson Nicola Willis. PHOTO: ODT FILES
National's financial spokesperson Nicola Willis. PHOTO: ODT FILES
True, this is a "mini" Budget rather than the full-fledged article, an enormous document which takes months of drafting and many more weeks to enact.

And it is also granted that thanks to the pre-election fiscal update requirements that National and its coalition partners New Zealand First and Act New Zealand do have a reasonable idea of the state of the country’s finances.

And there is certainly an expressed will for a mini Budget — New Zealand First and Act both made one an election promise.

But where there is a will, it does not always mean that there is an available way.

It is an heroic amount of work Ms Willis has set herself and her future Cabinet colleagues, let alone ministerial and parliamentary staff.

At a minimum it would likely require the House to sit for extended hours, it would almost certainly mean the use of urgency to pass law changes the government wants enacted before Christmas.

The budget might need to be not so much a mini as a bambina.

Ms Willis wants to deliver tax reform, as does Act leader David Seymour — each campaigned for more of what taxpayers earned to stay in their pockets.

But questions about how those lower taxes were to be afforded swirled even before the election — several independent economists publicly questioned whether the figures in National’s tax plan were aspirational at best or impossible to achieve at worst.

Her centrepiece revenue earner, a tax on foreign buyers of New Zealand property, seems doomed as New Zealand First is reluctant to back lifting the ban on such purchases it helped impose when it was last in government.

That leaves Ms Willis sitting like the last contestant on the final episode of The Chase, knowing that she has just two minutes to establish her own starting point before considering the higher and lower offers.

Then she actually has to work with her team to win in one final two-minute sprint before the credits roll and the show comes to an end for the rest of the year.

All the while, the "squeezed middle" Ms Willis made a feature of her pre-election rhetoric, wait and wonder if any prize money is going to trickle down to them.

Prudence may dictate that the mini Budget is better left until next year, but political pride means that it will be rushed through before Christmas.

Hopefully all parties have used the last few weeks wisely, drafting effective and properly costed policies which can be quickly passed, so that everyone knows where they stand as they head off on their holidays.