ERIC SHUFFLED BACK to the desk at which he had only just managed to wrangle a seat. God! How he hated these Budget lock-ups! It wasn’t just the security guards and the inevitable lanyards, it was the inescapable feeling that he was the stupidest person in the room. If it wasn’t the world-weary Gen-Xers, with their “God, I’m so bored.”, expressions, it was the eager-beaver Millennials, flipping their way through the chin-high piles of documents as if they actually knew what they were looking for – which most of them probably did. Eric didn’t even know where to start – had no idea why he was here.
“Don’t worry about the numbers,” his editor had cautioned him, “we’ve got others who can crunch those. What I’m wanting from you, Eric, is an assessment of Robertson himself. How convincing is his act? Does he come across as a man who knows more than he’s letting on, or, as a poor, exhausted schmuck, who’s just counting down the days until the agony of the Finance Portfolio becomes someone else’s problem?”
He had tried to explain to his 40-something boss that politicians like Robertson had become so good at putting up a front that it was almost impossible to see through it. But, it hadn’t done any good. His boss seemed to believe that, as a person in his late-60s, someone who could actually remember Rob Muldoon and the New Zealand that existed before Rogernomics, he possessed supernatural powers of political perception. He just couldn’t get it through to his boss that no matter how much he had seen of it, politics and politicians could still surprise him. If he could predict the future, then he sure as hell wouldn’t be earning his living tapping away interminably at a bloody keyboard!
If only they let you smoke in here! Reflexively, Eric reached for the last sausage roll left on the lunch platter – only to discover that the sauce bowl had been wiped clean. Damn! Now he was bound to send showers of flaky pastry all over the lapels of his crumpled sports jacket – again.
And right there, with impeccable timing, was Robertson, closely followed by Hipkins, taking their places behind twin lecterns. Chewing frantically, Eric, retrieved his notebook and pen, cleared a small space on the desktop, and waited for Robertson to speak.
“This has been a particularly difficult Budget to pull together”, he began. “On the one hand, I was determined to help wage and salary earners keep their heads above water in the face of a worsening cost-of-living crisis. On the other hand, I did not want to pump so much money into the economy that Adrian Orr, the Reserve Bank Governor, would feel obliged to raise interest rates to even more ruinous levels and plunge the economy into recession.”
As Eric swallowed the last of his cold and rather dry sausage roll, it occurred to him that the Finance Minister wasn’t actually talking like a Finance Minister. This was a level of honesty to which most politicians seldom rose. What was Robertson playing at?
“All the advice I was receiving urged me to offer up a few symbolic crumbs: extending ECE assistance payments to 2-year-olds; subsidising public transport fares; abolishing prescription charges. Just enough to reaffirm our identity as a Labour government. Crumbs aside, however, we should spend only what’s required to keep the machinery of state turning. A “No Frills Budget” that offers bugger-all bread and even less butter.”
Eric, enthralled, reached for his coffee. It would be cold by now, but he needed something to wash the sausage roll down.
“But then,” said Robertson, pausing for dramatic effect, “I thought – fuck it.”
Erics’s coffee sprayed heroically over the piles of budget documents in front of him. Were his ears deceiving him?
“Why should the poorest New Zealanders be expected to suffer the heaviest casualty-count in the battle against inflation? Why should a handful of unelected Reserve Bank officials be able to blackmail a democratic government into austerity by threatening to throw the entire economy into recession? The welfare of the country’s most vulnerable citizens has to be our priority. It is simply outrageous that families are being forced to choose between paying the rent and feeding their kids. They need more money and, by God, we’re going to give it to them!”
Eric’s eyes widened in disbelief. In 40 years of covering politics he had never heard a Finance Minister talk like this.”
“That’s why I have today written to the Reserve Bank Governor, formally instructing to cap the OCR at 5 percent until further notice.”
Jesus! Eric let out a low whistle. Robertson was breaking all the rules.
Then it was Hipkins’ turn.
“Thanks, Grant. It feels good to have those neoliberal shackles off our hands and feet, doesn’t it? But, it feels even better to announce that over the next three months the Government will be introducing a Wealth Tax, a Capital Gains Tax, and adding an additional step to the Income Tax. From 1 April 2024, all those earning over $250,000 per annum will be paying 60 cents in the dollar. Windfall taxes will also be levied on all foreign-owned banks, and upon the supermarket duopoly. Those New Zealanders who do not want their society to become more equitable and more just can, of course, attempt to vote Labour out of office. But, we’re betting the farm that a more equitable and just New Zealand is exactly what a majority of voters want – and, moreover, that they’ve been wanting it for the past 40 years!”
The young journalist looked down at the dishevelled old hack, head nestled upon chest, crumpled jacket covered in pastry flakes, drooling slightly from the corner of his mouth, quietly snoring, fast asleep.
“Eric! Eric! Wake up, Robertson’s about to speak.”
Eric sat up with a start, automatically brushing the pastry flakes from his shirt-front. Fumbling inside his jacket for his pad and pen, he glanced up sheepishly at the young journalist and her indulgent smile.
“Sorry. Sorry, luv. I must’ve been dreaming.
This short story was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 19 May 2023.