Finance Minister Grant Robertson and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on their way into the House for the reading of the Budget 2021. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Budgets in this country are full of big-spending wish lists in which the most ambitious and urgent projects make the least progress.
The differences between the Government’s annual Budget and the average person’s list of
New Year resolutions have become so minimal, in the sense of likely compliance levels, it’s time for a reckoning.
To be fair, though Budgets aren’t the holy writ they used to be, they still wheel out the big bucks. Even the most platitudinous items in them are backed with dizzying sums of money. It’s just that for a confounding eddy of factors beyond a modern government’s control, lots of those items can’t actually proceed within the Budget year, and it’s frustrating that this is never admitted to.
A few straightforward things do come true, such as this Budget’s benefit hikes. But increasingly, as with those resolutions to “lose weight” and “drink less”, Budget items are repetitive annual wish lists destined for patchy fulfilment at best.
It’s about time we considered a grading or labelling regime, akin to the “traffic light” system for healthy food or the old Heart Foundation tick. On a scale of one to 10, how excited should anyone get about each Budget announcement – as in, will it happen at all, eventually, a bit or possibly but not in this lifetime (think Transmission Gully)?
Such coding would provide guidance as to whether each programme announced was a new one or an old one reheated with a fresh set of anagrams. For example, KiwiBuild as we knew it technically doesn’t exist but is nevertheless a feature of the latest Budget, but under various new guises. There’s more money than ever for it, in particular for Māori housing, but still absolutely no guarantee that extra housing will eventuate concomitant with the sums provided. The reasons for this latest fiscal year of probable under-building are the same as for the previous years, although much exacerbated by Covid. Reciting them yet again is a tyre-spinning-in-mud exercise, but here goes: the country’s construction workforce is still too small, and land unavailability and red tape slow progress interminably, preventing us building anywhere near the amount of new housing needed. We could call this “code orange”, for road cones, aka indefinite delays.
The pandemic has now added a huge global shortage of building products – basics such as paint, cement, timber and steel are increasingly scarce and expensive – and supply uncertainties, which are sandbagging small tradies and big contractors alike. “Code puce”, for frustration.
The Government is cracking down on imported labour and immigration, so there’s a further handbrake to bringing in the extra workers needed, even as borders start reopening. The latter also crimps likely outcomes from bigger health and schools budgets. “Code red”, as in screech to a halt for lack of warm bodies.
Budget policies are increasingly like children’s books: tales fondly read and reread aloud, sometimes to be brought to life, but very often living on only in story books. Examples include the new Auckland harbour crossing, the second Mt Victoria tunnel and virtually everything to do with climate change mitigation. “Code blue”, as in don’t hold your breath or you’ll turn …
Not even really urgent things that are supposed to be happening right now are immune from Budget inertia. Covid vaccination, “code yellow with white stripes”, is said by the Government to be on target. That’s because there isn’t a target. “Hopefully by the end of the year” isn’t the same as a deadline. Note that no one has even said which year.
Still, over-specific stipulations can merit a “code black”, as in the supposed colour of those fathomless space voids. Where exactly are those One Billion Trees again? And the 10-bridges upgrade Northlanders were promised in 2015?
Grading should also indicate whether something is an actual plan or merely a policy intention for which no preparatory work has been done and for which there is no timeline for the preparatory work, let alone the actual project. This unknown can be limitlessly elastic, as with Auckland’s light rail and the scheme fate-temptingly christened “Let’s Get Wellington Moving”.
The former has only now, after several years of ducks and drakes, been given its timeline for the production of its timeline (six months). And bear in mind, no one yet has any idea whether the timeline, or the timeline’s timeline, will be for a tramline, a tramway or a train line, let alone where it will lead to or even to what purpose – decongestion or densification?
As for the latter project, as one witty local has observed, we will have to wait to see if a separate “Let’s Get Wellington Moving Moving” policy can make progress there.
Anyone who has ever wondered why governments often announce Budget programmes funding in lump sums over three or five years rather than in annual figures is delightfully uncynical. Obviously, it makes the investment sound bigger, but it’s mainly to disguise the fact that the departments intended to implement the programme won’t be ready to start spending the money until three or five years’ planning and hiring, logo and letterhead-commissioning, consultation, legislation and, chances are, litigation have elapsed. That and – see code red – they can’t get the staff.
It’s even possible that the Government’s books almost always turn out miraculously to be “Better than we expected!” because a stonking portion of the money that was supposed to be spent according to the Budget simply wasn’t able to be spent, so sloshed over into the next year’s accounts, and even the next and the next.
The bigger and more urgent the ambition, the slower the Budget progress. Water reform, the hospitals’ reorganisation, emissions reduction, local body rationalisation, greater invigilation of banks, regional development, electricity-sector reform, remediation of competitive monopolies, the Resource Management Act’s regeneration into three new entities, the future of Tiwai Point, the relocation of Auckland’s port … The only thing still Budget-secret is how long they’ll really take to get done.
Politicians persist in fanfaring Budget day as though it’s a second Christmas, when they know what’s under the tree are mostly vouchers redeemable several years hence, if at all.
We keep falling for it. But how refreshing it would be if a finance minister were one day to be honest: “Here are all the things we’re not doing yet, and this is all the money we’re not spending on them.”