The big budget news is another step towards rescuing “vulnerable children”. It is still far short of last November’s cross-party Paul Hutchison parliamentary health committee report’s recommendations and is mostly cash spending. But it marks a shift of focus.
The Hutchison report’s challenge was to invest in children from early in the womb and in their first years. The government is still chary at interfering at those critical early stages. But the budget talks specifically of “2000 6-9-year-olds” who “have had the worst start in life” and “will cost taxpayers an estimated $750 million in prison costs alone” and a great deal more in welfare, health and other costs.
So, in addition to the cash for more parental leave, parental tax credits and early childhood centres there will be eight more “children’s teams” to protect those “at risk”.
The rationale is “investment” which down the track produces a dividend in lower social repair costs — this government’s most important policy innovation.
Beyond that, the budget combines patching potential political sores and steady fiscal progress — plus a tax cut hint.
The patching is probably just enough to keep middling voters from crossing the line in numbers to Labour, Greens and New Zealand First.
The second underlines that, although the pressure is easing, there is still not room for extravagance. That probably reflects the public mood: strong consumer confidence but not euphoric shopping mall buying because interest rates are rising both in reality and anticipation.
That in turn constrains the opposition parties. They can promise a bit more spending but not too much and only to the extent that they can stay on Bill English’s rising surplus track by raising a bit more tax off the affluent.
Beyond the election it may be a different story. But that is for another budget.