How to win an argument on the government's surplus

10:11 am on 13 October 2018

By David Slack*

Opinion - In simpler times before the world it began its agonising descent into hell, the Minister of Finance was Michael Cullen. Endlessly the opposition and its loyal bloggers and pollsters would upbraid him for running surpluses, hectoring: "give us back our hard earned money you ivory tower academic commie who never wrote an invoice."

Grant Robertson, Minister for Finance announces Budget 2018.

Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

But Cullen kept right on with the surpluses until his final year in office when the skies turned black with GFC clouds. This was when he pulled mightily on the levers, drawing upon the benefits of all those rainy day surpluses. Somehow that same opposition arrived in office decrying him for having set us up for "a decade of deficits." There is a certain kind of person who will loudly complain if their rear end is on fire and they will also complain if you put it out for them.

How does one marshal an argument against a $5 billion surplus? Should this government have accumulated one, and what should they be doing with it?

Here is what to say if you feel that taxation is theft. Firstly you should quietly tuck away the argument that Labour always makes a mess because they've never run their own business any of these clowns, and what do they know about being good financial managers? You might have been making this assertion since you first heard your Dad say it, but mate, if you roll it out right now you're just going to sound a bit dim.

What you can say is: "Taxation is theft. You've got $5 billion spare. That's mine. Give it back. I want tax cuts. I'm going to lie down here, you socialists, and you're going to give me some relief."

If, however you believe that taxation is just and good, but you also believe that caution is important in all things, and/or you are in charge of getting the government re-elected you might say: "we must have prudence. We must be prepared for rainy day like Michael Cullen was, remember Michael Cullen and the buffer that protected us from the GFC before we began our agonising descent into hell," and you would be making a strong point.

But there are never just two sides to an argument in politics and here is a very important third one: you might say "Yes we must be prepared for rainy day, but look at this poverty and homelessness, do we not right now find ourselves getting soaked to the skin?"

This columnist interviewed the Minister of Economic Development David Parker recently and put to him a hypothetical which he very sportingly answered. Say he had an extra $100b to spend each year, how would he spend it? His first instinct was to hesitate scarcely able to imagine a government having that much good fortune, but in another moment he was off to work spending it. He had two priorities: to provide an affordable home for every single person, and to do what it would take to reach a day when we had no-one in jail. Also plenty more to stave off climate change disaster

Consider how very much better life here might be if you could do that. How about we just get going? Use the $5b surplus and when that's used up, borrow whatever it takes to get the job done.

I can easily and readily argue this, and here's why: I never have to run for office. But you can't tell me it's not an appealing argument.

*David Slack is an author, columnist and speechwriter. He was speechwriter for prime ministers Geoffrey Palmer and Jim Bolger.