Budget 2018: Betting the house on real economic change

5:55 pm on 17 May 2018

What can a budget do? It can transform lives, change the face of a nation, bring certainty and security, rip it away.

In the shadow of the Great Depression the state built thousands upon thousands of houses; created a safety net for all. In the 1980s, it catapulted us into the free market.

A budget can also be forgettable. Nothing much happens, nothing much changes. Is today's budget the beginning of large things? Maybe.

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Photo: RNZ

Commentators say our good terms of trade and low public debt are heartening.

Well, yes. But how comfortable should we feel about household debt in the order of 90 percent of gross domestic product? How comfortable should we feel about the low wages so many are paid? How comfortable should we feel about the cost of houses? And after so many decades of talking about it, do we have a diversified economy or do we still depend too much on logs and milk powder?

"Hold my beer," says the new finance minister. They will be doing things differently.

No more reliance on economic growth through immigration and a crazy house market and exporting raw commodities.

The new formula will be: lift productivity, put sustainability at the centre of your thinking and use it it as a springboard for economic transaction and job creation, try to work out how we adapt to the robofication of the modern world. This government will be turning the page on individualism, he says.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson delivers his 2018 Budget.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson delivers his 2018 Budget. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

A budget can make actual tangible change; it can also amplify that change by sending signals to people to change.

Ideally they change their lives in ways that build prosperity and productivity. If you're Roger Douglas and it's 1985, you find that your clear free market signals encourage people to ditch trying to make money from houses and and go into share clubs instead. A whole lot of nonsense companies get floated on the sharemarket and in due course the whole house of cards collapses.

The real impediment to change in our economy is the belief held by so many that the way to make money is to buy a house and wait. It's not sustainable in the long run, unless your kids can come up with a million dollars from a standing start, but there's plenty of money to be made on the way through.

And so we find ourselves presented with the spectacle of media presenters announcing on TV that their tenants can expect a rent increase if the government should do anything in the budget to undermine their property investment arrangements because "I'm running a business here" - a flattering way to describe the habit of following a herd of untaxed-capital-gain seekers who buy houses and borrow money from the bank.

Can this budget end the housing addiction? If they can flood the market with affordable housing, maybe yes. There's big action promised here: actual houses being built in their thousands, a billion in extra money to follow the two billion in the first mini-Budget, serious action to increase the supply of public housing.

Our last best hope of kicking the property market habit - and directing that investment activity into new sustainable enterprise - must surely be for Kiwibuild's 100,000 homes to flood the market so that the market plateaus. God willing and the creek don't rise.

There are capacity constraints - materials, labour force. Will mass production and kitset prefab buildings be the answer? The signal from this Budget seems to be: if there's a solution, we're hell-bent on using it.

If that transformation can happen, if we can finally kick the habit, this Budget (and the mini one that preceded it) will mark the moment where it began. That would be a warm memory for any government and any finance minister.