29 Jul 2018

Still no budget, but oh so nearly

From The House , 7:30 am on 29 July 2018

Grant Robertson outlined the Government’s financial plan back in May, but would you believe it, New Zealand still doesn’t have a confirmed budget.

It’s not a crisis though, it’s exactly like this every year. 

Usually, the media and the public lose interest the moment the budget has been first read in Parliament, but that doesn’t mean it’s finished at that point. It’s now two months later and it’s still not confirmed.

That may sound inefficient but arguably it’s just thorough. This is Parliament, after all, where slow, careful processes are everything. And the budget is, when you get right down to it, legislation, so it has to be passed through Parliament, just like everything else.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson delivers his speech for Budget 2018.

The Minister of Finance, Grant Robertson delivers his speech for Budget 2018. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

But we are now oh so close. So, time for an update on where we’re up to.

The Budget got introduced to Parliament in May, when it began a very lengthy debate over its first reading.  That very afternoon Michael Wood brought the members of his Finance and Expenditure Committee together and they divvied up the huge document between Parliament’s various Select Committees.

Those committees then each spent a month or so going through the details of their section, including questioning the ministers responsible.

They then each wrote reports of their findings, which were returned to the full Parliament as an impressive tome for its consideration. Parliament then debates those reports as 10 separate thematic debates spread across 11 hours. That’s where we’re up to now.

Labour MP Michael Wood in committee

Michael Wood, Chair of the Finance and Expenditure committee Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

The debate has a slightly odd twist this year. The rules are that each thematic section is introduced by the chair of a relevant Select Committee. Each chair is meant to speak on behalf of their entire committee (and therefore without any political slant).

Committee chairs are usually all from the governing parties, but unusually, this Parliament a lot of committees are chaired by opposition MPs.

A few of the chairs struggled to restrain their personal opinions in making the introductions, and were reminded of the rules by the chair (one chair had to be pulled up three time in five minutes).

National MP Anne Tolley is the Deputy Speaker of the House.

National's Anne Tolley, who as Deputy Speaker of the House had to regularly remind committee chairs to be disinterested (though hopefully not uninteresting) Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

This is the penultimate stage and once the debate is done there is just one more short (two hour) debate to go (the third reading) before New Zealand will have an official budget for the current year.

Yes, the current financial year. The one that began on July 1st. The reason that the government hasn’t run out of money in the meantime is that it also passes separate legislation to allow itself some petty cash to be going on with in the meantime.

Those bills are called Imprest Supply and happen pretty quietly. They aren’t debated fiercely because while MPs disagree over policy they all agree that a Government needs money.

We talked with Labour MP Michael Wood (chair of the Finance and Expenditure Select Committee) about the process (you can listen to that interview in the audio on this page).

His take on the easy run that all parties give Imprest Supply bills was that New Zealand’s political process gives all parties enough time and opportunity to investigate and debate the budget that they don’t feel the need to “play silly buggers”.