“Government is stuck in a fiscal holding pattern”

Bernard Hickey thinks that the Government is “stuck in a fiscal holding pattern” this term due to their commitment to Budget Responsibility Rules, which committed them to get net debt down to 20 percent of GDP and keep the budget in surplus across the economic cycle.

This fiscal straightjacket has been criticised by those who want the Government to launch into significant (and expensive) tax, benefit and social reforms.

Hickey (Newsroom):  ‘Let’s do this’ in a holding pattern

Jacinda Ardern’s first big economic speech of the year warned of global economic headwinds, but it lacked action in response, or a major plan to improve wellbeing. Instead, it exposed how her Government is stuck in a fiscal holding pattern before the 2020 election, when it hopes it can throw off its debt target and capital gains tax shackles.

The breakfast speech to a polite audience of Auckland’s business elite at the Hilton Hotel on the waterfront showed the Prime Minister at the top of her game. She is a smooth operator with a knack for a self-deprecating quip or an aside that can win over even the most sceptical audience.

“Our starting point for the Wellbeing Budget is that while economic growth is important, it alone does not guarantee improvements to New Zealanders’ living standards,” she said, going on to make a strong case to address our obvious wellbeing problems.

“An everyday New Zealander – hearing of the “rock star economy” while their housing costs are skyrocketing, or they can’t afford to send their kids to school with a proper lunch or their mental health is strained – tends to have their faith in the system and in institutions undermined.”

She went on to detail the plans and the priorities for the first Wellbeing Budget in May, and suggested it would help New Zealand cope with economic headwinds from overseas.

“It will ensure that those closest to the margins are protected and that no one is left behind,” she said.

Really?

How can that be true when Kiwibuild is behind schedule and there are massive infrastructure deficits in housing, health, education and transport, which can only be addressed with tens of billions of extra public investment. New Zealand’s population is growing five times faster than the OECD average and Ardern acknowledged in her speech that governments had encouraged population growth without investing in infrastructure to deal with it.

That’s what National had been criticised for (with some justification).

I asked Ardern afterwards if the Government was planning to respond to the slowing economy and higher unemployment by loosening fiscal policy with extra operational or investment spending.

She stuck to the usual line that the Government would keep operating within its Budget Responsibility Rules.

Ardern and right-hand-man and now-Finance Minister Grant Robertson agreed with Green Leader James Shaw shortly after her election as Labour leader to essentially sign up to the same fiscal settings as National had up until earlier that year.

They imposed those rules on themselves to stick with a campaign promise, made to promote Labour as fiscally responsible to combat attempts by National to portray them as loose with money.

Ardern and Robertson are playing a longer game here, but that is frustrating those who want rapid and meaningful reforms.

The only exception to this rule is the need to spend up large to cope with either natural or man-made financial disasters such as the Global Financial Crisis and the Christchurch earthquakes.

The irony is they need a new global financial crisis to give them the excuse to do what they need to do to make a real improvement in wellbeing.

So should the Government use its strong balance sheet to fix New Zealand’s massive infrastructure deficits? Yes should be the answer, but the timing should be now, not in two years time.

Unwilling to break its promise, it is now in a holding pattern and hopes voters keep the faith for long enough to give it a chance to throw off the shackles.

The Government has already committed to some extra spending – they boosted the Families Package, rushed in a tertiary education fees policy, and gave NZ First a $3 billion Provincial Growth Fund kitty. They will also end up with significant increases in teacher and nurse wage bills.

There are pressures to address what Labour had claimed was underfunding in health, but there seems to be no urgency there. They are now seem to be kicking the ‘mental health crisis’ down nine separate working group roads (see Mental health crisis -> 1 working group -> 9 working groups), and have stretched out their promised rebuild of the Dunedin Hospital (now due for completion in ten years).

Ardern has promised big in this year’s ‘wellbeing’ focussed budget, but has also promised small in debt targets, so Grant Robertson will have quite a balancing act to do.

Hickey sees this as a virtual holding pattern for the next two budgets, unless the world economy turns to custard and gives them an out clause.