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Finance minister Grant Robertson walking into a press conference (Photo: Getty Images)
Finance minister Grant Robertson walking into a press conference (Photo: Getty Images)

The BulletinMay 20, 2021

The Bulletin: Government keeps expectations low ahead of budget

Finance minister Grant Robertson walking into a press conference (Photo: Getty Images)
Finance minister Grant Robertson walking into a press conference (Photo: Getty Images)

Good morning and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Government keeps expectations low ahead of budget, emergency legislation introduced after court raises vaccine rollout concerns, and Labour hypocrisy over beneficiary sanction revealed.

It’s fair to say any hopes of a big Keynesian spending blowout are likely to be dashed in today’s budget. The expectations have been well and truly managed by the government – whether that means they really are going to take quite a conservative approach, or they want any big surprises to stay that way, remains to be seen.

So far there have been a few pre-budget announcements. There’s a useful wrap piece by Irra Lee on One News that covered them off, in the areas of women’s health, pay parity for ECE teachers, and decarbonising the public sector. Covid will also probably dominate spending announcements today. In a pre-budget announcement yesterday, minister Chris Hipkins revealed $1.4 bn would be set aside over two years for the vaccine rollout, with a billion of that going towards purchasing the jabs themselves, reports Radio NZ.

But we’re unlikely to see massive new projects that will take up heaps of public sector capacity. It’s something that hasn’t always been looked at in the context of government plans, but it’s fairly important. As Politik (paywalled) reported yesterday, there is currently no “bureaucratic capacity” for major new reforms. This isn’t necessarily a reflection on talent or resourcing or anything like that – it’s just that RMA reform, the health system overhaul and so on are also taking place this term. “Instead it is likely to be a document which moves sums of money around largely within existing policy areas,” wrote Politik’s Richard Harman. For more analysis on the background to this budget, read this piece by Duncan Greive about how the political situation in front of Labour is unprecedented – what with their extreme levels of parliamentary power, and the incredible cheapness of money right now.

So what might we see? Grant Robertson has signalled that there will be something in the area of Māori housing and child poverty, reports the NZ Herald’s Jason Walls. And our political editor Justin Giovannetti has written about the five big things to expect – some of them have been listed here, but his last point is really key, in that Robertson is also likely to focus heavily on debt, and how he’d love to spend heaps more but that would involve borrowing more than he’s happy with. Because everyone is equally in the dark on this, I asked around the office: Toby Manhire reckons there’ll be ” something substantial for social housing and something interesting for exporters,” Stewart Sowman-Lund thinks it’s time for more money for racing, Simon Day wants a big bump of spending on cricket, and culture editor Sam Brooks expects the arts to be defunded.

Finally, keep an eye out today for our live updates, with the budget being read from 2pm. And if you want an A-Z guide to some of the terminology that’ll be thrown around, well, here’s something I prepared earlier.

The government has had to introduce emergency legislation to continue the Covid vaccination programme, reports Stuff’s Thomas Coughlan. A High Court decision, made after a case brought by a group who are against “compulsory vaccinations”, has questioned the legislative basis for the vaccine rollout. As such, health minister Andrew Little said the law change would be passed under urgency. National and Act both indicated they’d support the government on it. An important point: The court case and law change should not be taken as any indication that the vaccine is unsafe.

The use of a sanction against beneficiaries who don’t turn up to court appearances has risen sharply under Labour, reports Benedict Collins for One News. It’s a classic example of how Labour have been a completely different party in opposition than in government – before they took office, no lesser figure than Jacinda Ardern was railing against it. The use of this particular sanction disproportionately affects Māori, and ministry officials have noted that it disrupts the lives of already vulnerable households.

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A serious blockage for fixing Wellington’s water woes – the city has run out of trained workers. Georgina Campbell reports for the NZ Herald that “deliverability” is going to be difficult across the region, unless a new training pathway being put into effect can pay dividends. The region’s water infrastructure is in famously poor shape. As Wellington Water chairman (and Hutt City mayor) Campbell Barry put it, “putting money in a budget line isn’t going to fix a water leak or replace a pipe”.

A story of staggeringly petty cruelty and stupidity: Tina Law at The Press reports a Christchurch community housing provider has unilaterally destroyed the garden of an elderly social housing tenant, without any warning or thought to her saving the herbs and plants. 80 year old Zhang Wang had been cultivating it for a decade, and was happy to make it smaller after some complaints from neighbours about access to a washing line. The produce of the garden had previously been given away to friends and others in the community. A follow-up story reveals that it might have a not-terrible ending – raised garden beds will now be installed instead.

Two significant media industry stories: The first comes from One News investigator Kristin Hall, who has reported on allegations of a “toxic culture” at radio broadcaster Mediaworks. There is an ongoing culture review going on at the company, but current and former staff are worried that nothing will change.

And the other one concerns Newsroom being taken to court over a damning investigation published into “uplift” practices at Oranga Tamariki. The contention is that in publishing the investigation, Newsroom broke the law by identifying a vulnerable child – the organisation strongly denies doing so. Media commentator Gavin Ellis has suggested that this may be a vindictive prosecution, urged by an embarrassed government department, which could have a chilling effect on how closely news organisations look into these sorts of matters in future.

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Right now on The Spinoff: Alice Webb-Liddall writes about the reality of living with OCD, through the stories of four women. Justin Latif reports on alleged illegal dumping of metal in Takanini. Chand Sahrawat, restauranter, urges the government to consider their immigration reset. Author Clare Moleta writes about trying to process her climate nightmares through her new book. Liam Finn joins the latest episode of FirstAlice Webb-Liddall (again) meets Billie Jo Hohepa-Ropiha, who has carved out a career making toilet-based innovations.

And there’s a brand new edition of The Side Eye comic, which this year is focusing on the theme of two New Zealands existing side by side. Toby Morris’ latest looks at the vast gap in experience for Māori and Pākehā who have cancer, and why Māori are much more likely to die earlier.

For a feature today, a remarkable story about people living homeless on the geographic and social edge of Masterton. Lisa Urbani from the Wairarapa Times-Age wrote this in March, and it only just came across my radar recently, but it’s both powerfully written and humane. Here’s the intro:

“Winter is coming” he said ominously, and when I saw the tents sheltering under a tree, next to a river, I shivered in the autumn chill. He wanted me to call him the ‘old fella’ for the purposes of this story, but truth be told, he is only 55, but looks much older.

One of 14 children who grew up in a small rural town, he is polite and soft-spoken. His alcoholic parents fed him porridge with cigarette butts and he ate it because the alternative was no breakfast. They taught him to steal at an early age, how to break into houses and sadly he says he never had a childhood.

He is very open about the fact that his life has been a litany of despair, drugs, alcohol, sojourns in prison, and in his younger years, gang-related activities, but he says he has “regrets for my decisions.” Now he is homeless, living in two tents, with two other homeless men, on the outskirts of Masterton, eking out an existence.

In many countries basketball is a low-cost sport which drives massive participation, but in New Zealand there are concerns about people being priced out. The Hui looked into the cost of being involved in basketball structures, and the fears this is creating of top talent “slipping through the cracks”. Former Tall Black Lindsay Tait says a “no pay, no play” culture is particularly disadvantageous to Māori and Pasifika people. The famous example is Steven Adams, who had little to do with Basketball NZ structures on his way up into the NBA.

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