Budget 2013: Fiscal deception, for the few and the privileged

Make no mistake: Budget 2013 is for business, not for citizens.

You know something’s gone terribly wrong when you agree with Winston Peters.

But when the NZ First leader called Budget 2013 “a classic neo-liberal prescription which favours the few and the privileged”, pointing out that everything sounds great when you put it in four-year terms, but if you go year by year “it sounds pretty lousy”, I found myself nodding my head in agreement. Yeah, Winston! You tell 'em!

Then I slapped myself around the head a few times and put myself under a cold shower.

Sure, there are some nice goodies in there – I can’t argue with the $200 million boost in funding for science, innovation and research. But waaaaait a minute, Winston! That’s just $50 million a year. Huh. When you put it like that, it does indeed sound pretty lousy. Surely innovation deserves more than that.

“For the average New Zealand family, it’s pretty bad,” Uncle Winston said of the Budget in general.

Okay, but there’s that tax break for startups to help them become investment ready (read Sim Ahmed’s take on it here), and new funding for the National Science Challenges and the Marsden Fund.

That’s nice, isn’t it, Winston? That'll help us grow in the creative industries.

“The mass majority of New Zealanders will not be fooled by this when they wake up to what it doesn’t mean for them,” Peters said, giving Joe Citizen a lot of credit for caring.

Hang on, that social housing stuff is nice, isn’t it? I mean, National cares.

But probably not for the 3,000 tenants who’ll be evicted from state housing over the next three years as part of the Social Housing Reform Bill, which will be introduced to Parliament this afternoon. That means 1,000 or so tenants will no longer qualify for state housing in 2015, and another 2,000 will be ineligible by 2017.

Of course, all this depends on how you feel about the welfare state and the inequality discourse.

But then there’s education; there’s more money for early childhood education and schools, plus new school property and operations grants. It’s a veritable box of warm fuzzies. And there’s the requisite push for everyone to achieve NCEA, with $6 million for a new mentoring programme to help “vulnerable students”. Everyone's an achiever!

On the other hand, “reprioritised funding” in the tertiary sector means people aged 40-plus will be restricted to 120 weeks of student allowances, while those over 65 won’t be able to get one at all.

So now education isn’t just for the rich, it’s also obviously for the young. We might as well have a sign on the door of universities: No old fogies allowed!

Of course, many will argue that educating oldies isn’t the best investment for the future of the nation, no matter how much knowledge they might have to build on already. But it is still a signal that what’s fit for some is not fit for others. National has had tertiary support in the crosshairs for some time, most recently axing student allowances for postgrad students. So on one hand, there’s support within businesses (startups) for R&D, but those wanting to enact R&D in a university setting can go to hell in a handcart.

Then there’s the decrease in ACC levies, which will benefit businesses, coupled with the delay of an additional two years of contributions to the NZ Super Fund. It says, let’s give businesses a break, but screw those ordinary citizens. Again, priorities. It's a tricky one though, isn't it? It's the political elephant in the room that nobody wants to tackle: the impending issues associated with a large, ageing population. Shhhh! They'll hear you!

After two years of zero budgets, this year’s effort will provide at least a small amount of relief for those hankering after a quick and dirty game of financial swings and roundabouts.
Broadcaster John Campbell wondered if the mass majority of New Zealanders – in contrast to Peters’ claims that citizens wouldn’t be fooled – in fact wouldn’t even notice that Budget 2013 had taken place.

“Is it so vanilla that it’s going to disappear into the ether almost immediately.”

But the words of Winston are ringing in my ears.

“It’s a rather obvious example of an exercise in fiscal deception.”