Budget 2022: Robertson must weigh the need to curb state spending against the urge to win popular support

The Ardern Government’s  popularity  appears  to  be  waning, according  to  recent  opinion polls – and  even  news  media  which previously were  unduly friendly  (no doubt influenced by the succour from state subsidies)  are   now  finding   flaws  in  ministerial performance.

A  column in Stuff  by  its  experienced  Kevin  Norquay has skewered  the  Ardern  team’s  propensity to  call  on New Zealanders to “be kind”, “listen to the science”, and boast “we’re so transparent”.

Norquay  likened the  Ardern-Robertson government to a “friend” who would like you to look the other way while it gets on with doing what’s good for its own best interests, such as getting re-elected.

“In 1863, US President Abraham Lincoln called democracy ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’. In 2022 NZ, it’s starting to look more like ‘of the people, by the party, for the party,’” wrote  Norquay.

“How else to explain health officials in November telling the Government MIQ was ‘no longer justified’, yet having the Government keep inbound MIQ in place for another 15 weeks, then trying to avoid releasing the details publicly?

“‘Listening to the science’ now carries a taint, as decisions made could be seen as party political, rather than public health related.It’s an erosion of trust. Why cover up things that are supposedly done in our best interest?

“They fought to keep it hidden for four months.Robertson echoed that, adding: ‘I continue to believe MIQ did a significant job in keeping New Zealanders safe and in saving lives.’

“There’s that ‘friend’ again, telling us all the secrecy was for our own good. Whether MIQ did a good job is not the point here, it’s when that good job might have ended.  You could argue ‘we listen to the science’ remains accurate, with the coda ‘but our decisions are based on the politics’, but transparency was always a fiction written boldly on a blocking PR wall”.

So  can  the  Ardern-Robertson  team   reverse   its  slide  in  popularity?

They   will get  their  chance  with the presentation of the  forthcoming    budget,  just  three  weeks  away.

The Government’s economic programme has  become  crucial  not  just  in  a  political  sense  but  also  for the  course  the  economy and the Budget’s impact on voter attitudes will  flow through  to  the  election.

But  the  government’s difficulty  has  been  compounded  by   raging  inflation.  Opposition parties   are  attacking  it for  allowing inflation  to  run  out  of  control-, although Robertson  insists overseas  factors have  driven  it.

But that doesn’t  help  the  average  Kiwi  from  feeling the huge financial pinch when buying the  groceries and meeting other household costs.  It also  serves as  a  reminder  of  the  government’s  other  failures  in  housing, child  poverty,  health  and  schooling.

Already  the  Governor  of the  Reserve Bank,  Adrian Orr,  has  been  calling  on the  government to  help  in  the  battle against inflation  by  deploying its  fiscal weaponry.  That,  in  theory,  should  discourage it from throwing  out money  to win votes.

And  then  there   are  the  demands of  climate  change.  Robertson   is  committed  to  spelling out how the  government  will finance its  bid  to  bring   NZ’s  contribution  to global  warming under  control.

Few   doubt  this  will  be an expensive process.  Dairy  farmers  – for example – are  worried  that the  government will  adopt the Climate Change Commission’s  recommendation that  herd  numbers  should be  cut  by  15%.  This  is  considered necessary  to    reduce  methane  emissions   which  at  present  are  one of  NZ’s   biggest   impacts on  global  warming.

That  would be a blow to export earnings   at  a  time   when the  country  needs every  dollar  it  can pick up.

There is  little  doubt   this  will   be  one  of the  most  difficult  budgets to  prepare in  the  past decade.  It  will  be a major  test  of  Robertson’s skill in deploying his political—and  economic— weapons.

Will  he be gunning for popularity – or  austerity?

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