Foodie flair, but bland Budget on Robertson’s big day

The Government promised a boring Budget, and it largely delivered - albeit with a bit of culinary flair and political insult-trading around the fringes, as Sam Sachdeva writes

With a new government comes the chance to break old traditions.

On the morning of Budget Day, Finance Minister Grant Robertson eschewed his predecessor Bill English’s traditional picture with a pre-Budget pie, instead chowing down on cheese rolls for the cameras with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

While Robertson said the choice was a nod to his own background, was the Southland sushi also an attempt to encourage a subconscious association with his dour Dipton predecessor, and English’s reputation for fiscal prudence?

The Treasury provided some welcome culinary stability, having committed pre-Budget to providing free sausage rolls in the interests in New Zealand’s social and human capital (while also heading off attempted capital punishment from hangry journalists and economists).

There was some flair in the form of colour-coordinated coalition lamingtons: the red and black varieties flew off the table, leaving the lonely greens huddled together (read those tea leaves however you will).

The Budget itself was almost as bland as promised though, with Robertson titling his speech “Foundations for the Future” and focusing on consolidation rather than conspicuous spending.

Labour's side of the House - and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern - appeared delighted with the Budget speech. Photo: Sam Sachdeva

English went down a similar track in 2009, although the causes were different: at the time he cited the impact of the global financial crisis as well as his Labour predecessors, while Robertson placed blame squarely at the feet of the National government.

Also different, argued the current Finance Minister, is the cure. His first major applause line came when he said the Government was “determined to turn the page on the ideology of individualism”.

“Our economy must be more inclusive ... a society where everyone has an equal chance to fulfil their potential, to contribute, and to live meaningful, connected, healthy and fulfilling lives.”

Sporting a red rose on his lapel and a similarly-hued tie gifted to him by Ardern, Robertson’s Budget largely stuck to faithful Red Team areas such as health, housing and education.

As Newsroom ’s Bernard Hickey has already pointed out, he actually had more room to move, but there’s no harm in a left-wing government appearing fiscally prudent.

Given National’s repeated attacks on former Labour leader Andrew Little as “Angry Andy”, it was a little surprising new leader Simon Bridges opted to go down the “Shouty Simon” route in response.

National leader Simon Bridges pulled no punches in his response to the Government's Budget. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

Yet he was all fire and fury, panning a “tax and spend ... borrow and hope Budget” and the Government’s “special form of incompetence”.

Waving around Budget papers as he berated the failure to fund a new prison or a Dunedin hospital, he accused the Government of squeezing “a squeezed middle” hard.

“Everything we did was about making the boat go faster, and they've pulled anchor.”

It was a high-energy speech to say the least, and one that received cheers from National and a double thumbs-up from Judith Collins.

Rising to address what she termed “the Leader of the Opposition’s 19 minutes and 30 seconds of shouting”, Ardern praised Robertson for considering the story behind every single dollar.

“No decision was ever flippant or less important than the other. Each was considered, it was prioritised, and it was balanced to form some firm foundations for the future.”

Saying she wanted her child to look back decades from now and praise the Government “rather than deciding to change their name”, Ardern won rousing applause from her MPs when pledging to move beyond the status quo.

“I would rather be a Prime Minister that tried and missed, than a Prime Minister that never tried at all and conceded before we picked up a hammer.”

“This is a Budget for every Kiwi - and every takahe and every kaka and every kereru.”

As for Ardern’s coalition partners, both New Zealand First and the Greens had cause to be happy, albeit the former more than the latter.

With a foreign aid boost, further money for the Provincial Growth Fund, and funding for more police officers in the bag, Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters was content to take on National’s interjecting backbenchers and offer an ill-advised and minimally applauded promise to “make New Zealand great again”.

Green Party co-leader and Climate Change Minister James Shaw, whose parliamentary quips have tended to fall flat in the past, managed to get a good joke in when talking about increased conservation and environment funding.

“This is a Budget for every Kiwi - and every takahe and every kaka and every kereru.”

Ultimately though, the day was about Robertson, and the big hug he received from Ardern after his speech seemed vindication enough - even if there is a long way yet for the Government to travel.

Tip for next year: maybe leave the green lamingtons off the menu.

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