Labour backbenchers, conscious that recent polling shows their political futures could be cut short, will be looking to this week’s budget to replenish their party’s popularity with handouts to swing votes.
They could be disappointed, if the Budget’s programme does not tackle voters’ concerns.
BNZ economists last week warned that the chances of a recession are “increasing by the day”. Economist Cameron Bagrie says controlling government spending to tamp down the factors causing high inflation should be a priority for the government, but a big-spending budget is already locked in.
This then could be the moment for Finance Minister Grant Robertson to produce the proverbial from his hat.
Certainly his opponents have been generous with their advice, urging him to offer tax relief and in particular to reverse the tax bracket creep which is adding to the bruising from the wage-price spiral.
There is little evidence that Robertson sees this in the same light as the Opposition does.
Indeed Steven Joyce, the former National minister and now a commentator in the NZ Herald, contends Robertson is on a different planet.
He wrote on Saturday:
“There were more datapoints this week suggesting the public of New Zealand and its Government are currently inhabiting different planets.
“Going on the statements from the Beehive, ministers are clearly focused on growing the public service, doling out a big climate change slush fund, taking the long handle to the public’s preferred means of getting around, implementing co-governance of public assets, and pouring another massive dollop of borrowed cash into the hungry maw that is their giant new health bureaucracy.
“The public, on the other hand, are dealing with a runaway cost of living, shrinking household budgets, rising mortgage rates, diminishing asset values, a surge in aggressive criminal activity, long queues at the local hospital, a declining education sector and the growing realisation that economic activity is being frustrated by an obstructionist political class.”
The view that Robertson and his leader may be on a different planet has some merit, but there may be a more mundane explanation for Labour’s leadership acting as if they are out of touch with Joe Blow in the street.
It is that Labour’s caucus contains so many political neophytes that it is not keeping ministers in touch with what ordinary New Zealanders are experiencing.
In an earlier era the caucus room was the amphitheatre in which issues of the day were fiercely debated. That happens less frequently and the caucus is served decisions that have already been pre- cooked in the Beehive and discussed and digested with coalition and/or support parties.
Covid has tended to strengthen that trend.
As the power of caucus has weakened, the role of communication specialists become more dominant. Ministerial offices have more of them and the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet has a small army, all marching to the same drumbeat.