Thankfully, a boring budget

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 27 May 2016

It is a journalistic sin to come up with headlines such as “Small earthquake in Chile, not many dead”. With that in mind, you have to pity journalists trying to write about yesterday’s budget.

Budget 2016 may well go down in history as the most boring budget ever delivered in New Zealand history. There was simply nothing exciting, eye-catching or even moderately surprising about it.

Yet that was precisely its greatest achievement.

In Westminster-style democracies, there has developed a strange cult around Budget Day. It includes rather odd parliamentary traditions. In Britain, for example, the Chancellor of the Exchequer may have an alcoholic drink while delivering the budget speech to the House of Commons.

Fortunately, we do not have that in New Zealand (nor do I really want to imagine a tipsy Bill English).

However, we do share the expectation in many other English-speaking countries that government’s role on Budget Day is to pull bunnies out of the hat. A tax cut here, some new spending programmes there, or at least a few tax simplifications.

Apparently budgets are meant to be electrifying, unpredictable and sensational. And of course, that is what gallery journalists prefer. After all, their business is reporting on politics as if it was a combat sport.

But is this really the best way to think about policy-making?

In a parliamentary democracy, you would hope that new policy initiatives are not presented by the government as a fait accompli. Instead, they are developed and refined in the parliamentary process.

Bills are introduced, debated in three readings and in select committees before they eventually become law. The purpose is to allow parliament, and the public, to scrutinise the government’s plans and discuss alternatives. It is an often cumbersome procedure but it serves a purpose.

With budgets, the public (or at least the media) expect the opposite. Rather than long and elaborate discussions, they demand manna from heaven: quick fixes for our problems, introduced without preparation or debate, ideally surprising voters and wrong-footing the opposition.

Call me naively democratic, but I do not think that is the best way to run a country.

I much prefer budgets without surprises and real policy developments through the appropriate parliamentary processes. This allows checks and balances, parliamentary scrutiny and public debate.

Bill English has delivered a solid, unspectacular and sober budget. And there is nothing wrong with that. Unless you are a gallery journalist.

PS: You can also read my take on the Budget in The Australian Financial Review.

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