How Labour's 'no frills' budget can earn voters' trust

5:32 pm on 18 May 2023
Finance Minister Grant Robertson and Prime Minister Chris Hipkins walk to the Parliament chamber for the delivery of the 2023 Budget, 18 May 2023.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson and Prime Minister Chris Hipkins. Photo: Johnny Blades / VNP

Analysis - Grant Robertson rose to deliver his sixth budget on Thursday, New Zealanders were wondering what his biggest, juiciest announcement would be in an election year. Few would have guessed that his big economic and political play was… nothing.

In line with the 'Responsible Robertson' role he has taken on in his two terms as Labour's finance minister, the MP for Wellington Central cut his cloth carefully and resisted what must have been intense pressure from within and around his party to put more money in New Zealanders' pockets. After a 2022 Budget that played to Labour's base, this year's effort was essentially an inflation-driven budget that many more right-leaning parties would have been happy to deliver. The thinking clearly was 'the less we do, the more we help middle New Zealand'.

We have come to expect a few big announcements from the finance minister on Budget days; this year the headline news came instead from Treasury. The key info? No recession after all, inflation has peaked, and it is expected to fall to 3.3 percent as early as next year. Robertson says 79 percent of the spending in this Budget has gone to maintaining the status quo rather than shiny new schemes. He wants voters not to ooh and aah over some spending plan or tax cut, but to feel relief that this corrosive inflation that is making life so difficult for us all is coming down faster and further than expected. He wants voters to thank him for doing nothing, and in doing so getting the economy back into shape faster.

Though to be fair, it is not entirely nothing. The inevitable frills in a 'no frills' budget come mostly in the form of wins for the young families that both major parties see as critical in this year's election. The sum of $1.2 billion will be put into early childhood education over the next four years so that Labour's '20 hours free childcare' is extended to cover two-year-olds, as well as the three to five-year-olds already covered. There is more money for classrooms, school lunches, and kura. And five to 12-year-olds will get free public transport.

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The most populist move - which will save people money and improve health without being inflationary - is to scrap the $5 prescription charge you pay at the chemist. Annoying for some, life-changing for others. Robertson estimates 135,000 New Zealanders did not pick up their prescription last year because of that cost.

Wellbeing Budget 2023.

Photo: RNZ // Angus Dreaver

But in terms of headline policies, that is about it. 'Responsible Robertson' means Labour can impress upon voters that it can be trusted with the economy in bad times and good, something voters have long been sceptical about.

Yet let's be clear: Come the election, Responsible Robertson will hand over to Hopeful Hipkins. Labour's betting that the economy will be looking a little more solid come October, allowing its leader to start promising some big-ticket items over the next three years - just as long as you vote for the red team. This Budget is spending delayed, not spending denied.

It is interesting to note that some of Labour's moves look to lock in policies close to its heart (and close to the heart of the Green Party). More money for the Green Investment Fund, the warmer winter homes scheme alongside those school lunches and free public transport for kids - that spending all makes it incredibly hard for any future cost-cutting government wanting to claw back those policies. Those look like policies that are here to stay.

Finance minister Grant Robertson showing the cover of Budget 2023 the day before its reveal

Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

And talking about the long-term, in the midst of this budget is some spending that could well be what we remember most about Budget 2023 when we look back on it in 20 or 50 years. Labour has promised to spend a mammoth $71bn on infrastructure over the next five years. Compare that to the $45bn it has spent on infrastructure in the past five years.

"For too long, governments have kicked the can down the road when it comes to investing in resilient and essential infrastructure," Robertson said. "Today, we embark on the long-term nation-building a responsible government must do".

This is Robertson's legacy stuff, lest Labour lose the election. And it is perhaps a wee dig that he used John Key's oft-used phrase about kicking the can down the road to announce it.

It is only a third of the $210bn infrastructure deficit New Zealand has, but it is a significant start. His biggest challenge will be finding the workforce to build all the roads, rail, schools and local public works that money can afford. It certainly indicates he will do nothing to restrict the rapidly increasing numbers of immigrants returning to New Zealand's shores.

Inside that policy is $6b for the 'National Resilience Plan'. The money on roads, rail and more will be spent in a way that acknowledges the reality of climate change now, not as some future concern. That may be the most significant part of this budget. With the Cyclone Gabrielle repairs, Robertson promised to "build back better". Expect that to be a phrase you hear a lot in the months ahead.

That is much more future-focused than most election year budgets. But that is exactly the point. Labour does not want to be seen to be splashing the cash right now. It wants your trust more than your excitement. It wants Responsible Robertson front and centre. For now.

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