2 Dec 2015

English makes no future surplus promises

5:45 am on 2 December 2015

After returning the government's books to surplus, the Finance Minister Bill English is not making any promises about reaching it again.

Bill English on the bridge at Parliament.

Bill English said the government was not mindlessly focused on surpluses. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Treasury is reviewing tax and spending rules after the government met its target of a modest $414 million surplus in the June financial year.

Mr English said after staring at a $18 billion blow-out in the government's books in 2011, the target was appropriate.

"That was all about reducing a very large deficit driven by one off events like the Christchurch earthquake and the significant recession."

Mr English is not making any promises about future surpluses.

"We're not mindlessly going to be focused on surpluses. For instance the economy has been a bit softer. That may mean there's more people on the benefit, a bit less tax revenue coming in. And we wouldn't want to be making inappropriate short term decisions because of a particular surplus target."

But Mr English said reducing debt and keeping spending in check would remain key targets.

The government aims to reduce net debt to below 20 percent of GDP by 2020, and cut spending as a share of GDP to below 30 percent by June next year.

Free market think-tank New Zealand Initiative want spending limits enshrined in law.

Senior fellow at the Initiative Bryce Wilkinson would prefer the government to adopt a bolder goal of limiting spending to 25 percent of GDP, to avoid election year spending sprees and waste.

"The impulse of an incumbent government that's looking in trouble at the next election is to throw money at people at the expense of the longer term fiscal situation."

But Council of Trade Unions economist Bill Rosenberg said focusing on just financial sustainability and economic stability was too narrow.

Dr Rosenberg said Treasury itself was currently using a wider framework - including equity and sustainability - to improve New Zealanders' living standards and that should be in the mix.

He said spending was more than just balancing the books.

"The Government is also there to make sure we have a good health system, make sure we have a good education system, make sure that people don't fall into poverty, make sure that environmental problems don't get out of hand.

"Those all need to be taken into account when the government considers its spending and therefore fiscal rules need to reflect those factors."

Dr Rosenberg said a fixation on government spending could also obscure other urgent matters, including the what he said was a chronic reliance on foreigners to fund New Zealand's lifestyle.

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