Inching forward

Only true rugby afficionados appreciate the subtlety of the rolling maul: the grunting, heaving mass of muscle inching inexorably towards the try-line. To others it can appear an opaque and rather pointless exercise, prone to stalling, or collapse, with little ground gained, much effort expended and not much to show for it.

It is neither the most spectacular nor attractive of manoeuvres and in adopting it as a metaphor for his Government's stimulus package, the details of which were released on Wednesday, Prime Minister John Key has entertained certain risks.

These are primarily that the $500 million initiative and its effects may remain largely invisible to a populace that, at least in part, it is intended to reassure; or, worse, that it simply does not carry sufficient financial grunt to make headway against the encroaching depredations of the recession.

Certainly in the South, the visible impact of the package announced to date will be negligible. It appears Dunedin and Otago must wait thirstily at the closed tap of Government beneficence and hope for the much-vaunted trickle-down effect.

While it is true that the $142 million planned for roading, the $216 million in education and the $124.5 million towards the upgrading and building of new state housing will save an estimated 2000 jobs and provide something of a bulwark against the slowdown - which is predicted to add up to 70,000 to the unemployment figures over the next two years - and otherwise bolster the national economy, the fact that the expenditure is almost entirely around projects further north means the wait at the tap may be a long one.

Putting aside the question of the proposed Awatea St stadium, which the Government had foreshadowed would not be a part of this particular entity, there were projects that would have appeared to be within the general ambit of stimulus injection - the $42 million Caversham motorway extension and the estimated $16 million urban arterial route linking Strathallan St and Ravensbourne, for example - and that they were not, can only come as a letdown.

Unsurprisingly, the Labour-led opposition has been quick to label the move as "underwhelming" and "puny", to which Finance Minister Bill English has fired back the accusation that Labour's expansionary 2008 tax and spending budget left the Government with less room to move than it would have liked. Furthermore, the country has been assured that this week's roll-out was the first of a series of measures to combat economic turbulence.

The scale and rapidity of the international downturn - unprecedented since the Great Depression of the 1930s - means there is no such commodity as conventional wisdom over precisely how best to combat such crises, and countries have responded variously to it.

Mr Key's drip-feed option differs conspicuously from the king-hit approach of President Barack Obama's wince-evincing trillion-dollar United States fiscal stimulus package, and of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's $43 billion shot.

Besides these measures, National's looks like chickenfeed. But the circumstances of each country are different. New Zealand has been in a home-grown recession for months already and has yet to feel the harshest effects of the global meltdown. Mr Key and Mr English have chosen to keep their powder dry for darker days to come.

And should these not arise, so much the better because if the country is to avoid a credit downgrade - and as a result find it more difficult to attract overseas funds for borrowers - it must be cognisant of the dangers of accruing too much debt as a proportion of GDP. A degree of caution is mandatory.

To many south of the Waitaki, such arguments might appear academic given the region's snubbing in this funding round. But hard on the heels of it came news of a further $100 million to be spent on upgrading the national electricity grid, some of which might be expected to find its way into Otago's regional coffers.

And the Government has left open the prospect of a contribution - albeit "modest" - to the proposed new stadium. With revelations of the potential for the "first sods to be turned" as early as June, it would certainly fit the ready-to-roll criteria for Government-sponsored stimulus projects.

So, while it is disappointing that at this point Otago appears to fly under the Government's infrastructure radar, National's slow but steady march upfield against the recessionary tide is sensible.

As spectacular as a runaway try in the opening minutes might be, rugby stalwarts know that ultimately the game is more likely to be won or lost in the less visible machinations of the rolling maul.


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