A clever document

Budget 2014 was handed down yesterday without much fanfare.

We all knew it was coming, of course, and most believed the pre-Budget hype of a predicted surplus after six years of fiscal restraint.

Many hoped there would be some loosening of the purse strings. Finance Minister Bill English has largely delivered.

This was the Budget that National - right from the time of its re-election in 2011 - would have hoped it could produce leading into this year's election.

Mr English has not swayed from his path of fiscal restraint. Sure, he has had to borrow heavily during the past six years, but not to the extent the country plunged into recession.

Now, the return to surplus gives options such as paying down debt.

The careful management of the country's finances by Mr English, and his team of ministers, has helped ensure New Zealand has been mainly immune from the worst of the global decline affecting Europe, parts of Asia, the United States and, latterly, Australia.

Economic growth has been one of the highest in the OECD and, for once, all Treasury indicators are pointing in a positive direction.

This was a Budget of few surprises, but with enough good news to count for something.

With the Government's books returning to surplus, there is room for the finance minister to increase future expenditure, and new spending will increase from $1 billion to $1.5 billion.

Mr English is taking something of a risk in forecasting higher spending without identifying the source of funds, but given his record he must be confident of his projections.

The forecast expenditure in social areas will leave opposition parties with very little room to manouevre in an election campaign.

As detailed on our front page today, the prospect of tax cuts, more money spent on social housing, a $500 million families package which includes extending parental leave, an extension of free doctors' visits, tax credits for working families who are not on a benefit and extra funding for early childhood education, along with funding to help New Zealand's most vulnerable children, have cut the ground from under Labour and the Green Party.

Even extra funding for protecting dying North Island kauri has been allocated.

Auckland receives enough attention to ensure the Government's big goals of ensuring Christchurch is rebuilt and Auckland's transport and housing difficulties are addressed.

More money has been allocated to Christchurch in the Budget, but not so much to cause outrage among the regions.

And there has been enough earmarked elsewhere throughout the country - including at the University of Otago, for instance - that the Government will claim the regions have not been neglected - despite ongoing criticism from some.

Budget 2014 is a clever document, with thoughtful spending alongside continued moderation.

It will enable Prime Minister John Key to go into the election campaign confident his 2008 promises of fiscal restraint, providing the best care for families, and delivering a better public service have not been compromised.

Opposition parties will have to promise big to counter National, and if they do, the onus will be on them to say exactly how they will fund those promises.

This is Mr English's sixth Budget. If National is re-elected in September, what are the odds Mr English will not be there to deliver the next three?

Given the return to surplus, it would be no surprise if he delivered one more, perhaps to prove to doubters a surplus is possible, before standing down and perhaps leaving Parliament for a future overseas.

If he is looking for a document to define his legacy as Finance Minister, Budget 2014 is a good place to start.

There is some criticism the Budget is too conservative, but that personifies Mr English, who learnt the trade from former finance minister Sir William Birch. And would most New Zealanders rather have a gambler as a finance minister, or a safe pair of hands?

The ''Boy from Dipton'' has lived up to his reputation as a ''conservative'' politician in every way.

 

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