Lisa Owen interviews Finance Minister Bill English
Lisa Owen interviews Finance Minister & Deputy Prime Minister Bill English
English says no new spending cuts to achieve surplus
He’s still “confident” the Government will make its forecast surplus in the 2014/15 year although dairy prices have dropped “further and faster than expected”
Agrees economic growth appears to have peaked earlier this year, but New Zealand is looking at a longer period of 2.5% to 3% growth
“Our markets aren’t looking really bubbly. There’s some uncertainty about where they’re going”
Will set out plan for next year’s $1 billion of extra spending in Half Year Economic and Fiscal Update.
Hints that numbers in the Update will be “a bit hard” but says “the government won’t over-react….people have been able to rely on us to maintain our spending to protect the most vulnerable”
“Just because the dairy prices drop and we lose a bit of tax revenue doesn’t mean we’re going to go and randomly reduce expenditure”
Tax cuts in 2017 are “still possible” but focus in next 12 months is dealing with housing market pressure, pay rounds in public sector.
Reaction to the Inspector-General’s SIS report: “There was nothing there that isn’t a lot of the normal business of politics”
Asked if he accepts the findings of the Inspector-General’s report in their entirety he responds: “yes”, yet says “John Key runs the most transparent government that New Zealand’s ever seen”.
Doesn’t believe Nicky Hager is owed an apology.
Says he’s never texted or received texts from WhaleOil blogger Cameron Slater, “I understand he doesn’t like me”
Lisa Owen: We'll hear the Deputy Prime Minister's views on Dirty Politics later in the interview...but we start with concern that the economy may be hitting some bumps in the road. Bill English has taken to talking about the "challenge" of reaching his much-promised surplus in recent speeches and just this week the BNZ joined the voices of those saying the economy had peaked. The bank's head of research Stephen Toplis predicted "very, very low growth", even the risk of recession, in the next few years. So when I sat down with Bill English earlier I began by asking if this is as good as it gets.
Bill English: Well, what you want that’s good is a longer period of sustained growth. And the indications are that while the economy— economic growth has, you know, peaked about— in the first part of this year that we’re looking at a longer period where we can get two and a half to three per cent growth, because that’s what delivers results for households. It’s not just one pay increase; it’s being able to get a bit of a moderate pay increase year after year and where they can see their prospects out ahead of them looking pretty positive.
So you don’t agree that it’s actually going to go very, very low, as the bank says?
I think the BNZ’s got a reasonably, you know— they’re at the bottom end of expectations, a reasonably bearish view about where the economy’s going to go. You never quite know, and there’s always economic risks, like what’s happening in the global economy. It’s not looking quite so good. Some of our prices are down.
Yeah, so what are those risks, do you think, globally to our economy?
I think just the— You’re getting more divergence across the world, so the UK and the US look to be picking up, but Japan and Europe look like they might be going backwards. And I think there’s a bit of uncertainty in Australia, as well as some uncertainty about China slowing down. So our markets aren’t looking really bubbly. There’s some uncertainty about where they’re going.
So how worried are you about that?
I’m not that worried in the sense that New Zealand has proven itself to be pretty resilient. Our households and our businesses adapted very well through the recession. I think they’re quite proud of getting through that. There’s an underlying sense of confidence that’s not reliant— that’s not all about whether the GDP number’s big. It’s more about our sense of our own capacity to handle what the world throws at us, and that’s positive.
Okay, well, in saying all of that, are you still certain that you’re going to make surplus this year? Because you were on this show in April and you said it was going to happen, and I want you just to look back at what exactly you did say, so let’s have a look at that clip.
Patrick Gower: Are you going get that surplus in this Budget? Yes or no?
Yes, we will get there, but it’s a bit of a push.
You’re going to definitely get the surplus?
Yeah, we’ll get the surplus.
Owen: So are you definitely going to make it?
Oh, we believe we can make it. We’ll know this time next year, when we get the actual results for the 14-15 year.
Yeah, but ‘believe’ or ‘confident I’m going to make it’? Because you were confident then.
Yeah, no, I’m confident we can make it. As I’ve already said publicly and the Prime Minister has as well, the big drop in dairy prices has been further and faster than expected. We always thought they’d drop, but it’s gone further, and that means five or six billion not coming in the economy that we can’t tax.
And I want to talk about dairy a little bit later, but I’m slightly confused, because you have been using these words like ‘it’s going to be a challenge’, yet before the election, you seemed ultra-confident. You know, you put out a press release before the election – I’ve got it right here – in which you say a re-elected National Government will return surpluses this financial year and stay there. So no equivocation there, yet you seem to be wavering a little bit.
Well, the aim hasn’t changed. It’s the same now as it was before the election. What, what is a bit different at the moment is just that the dairy prices have dropped further, faster. The rest of the economy, though, is in pretty good shape, and we’ve yet to see whether that will offset the impact on the government finances.
So, you’ve mentioned dairy a couple of times there. Are you surprised that the price has dropped so much?
Yeah. In the last Budget, in the middle of 2014, there was a forecast for prices to drop, based on the best information. They’ve dropped further. I think even Fonterra, who are the experts in it, would tell you it’s gone further than they expected. But other prices are higher.
Minister, that means that you banked a surplus based on commodity prices before the cheque had even arrived, so was that a little unwise?
Oh, no, it’s not unwise. I mean, part of the business is forecasting where you’re going to get to with the best information that you have. It’s a reminder that New Zealand is subject to these global uncertainties. I mean, a positive one is the drop in oil prices. No one was quite expecting oil prices to drop as far as they are.
But as you point out with dairy, that’s potentially $6 billion shaved off the economy. That’s twice the Christchurch rebuild. That’s not a little fluctuation. That is enormous figures.
Well, look, it’s— Yeah, but we can handle it, and in the half-year update, we’ll put out the next forecast about the number for 2014-15. Government is not going to overreact if that number’s a bit hard. You know, people have been able to rely on us to maintain our spending to protect the most vulnerable.
Yeah, but Russel Norman from the Greens – he said no financial manager in their right mind would bank on commodity prices staying at historic highs. So were you not in your right mind at the time that you counted on those prices?
Well, I disagree with Russel. I mean, the forecasts were based on quite a big drop in the dairy prices. It’s gone further a bit sooner than people expected, but as I said, other prices are working for us.
But even so, Minister, isn’t that just a classic case of counting your chickens before they hatched?
No, I don’t think so. It’s just working with the world as it is, and that is the world’s an uncertain place. But the great thing about our economy is we’re resilient. We can handle these things. Just because the dairy prices drop and we lose a bit of tax revenue doesn’t mean we’re going to go and randomly reduce expenditure, for instance.
Okay, well, you’ve promised an extra $1.5 billion of spending. Is that still affordable given the figures that you’ve mentioned?
Yes, it is. Well, actually, we promised a billion of new spending.
And we will need that much in order to maintain and improve our services for the public, and we can afford it.
So are you saying then that you can guarantee that you’re not going to have to trim off government spending in order to get to surplus?
Well, we’re not going to do anything sort of random and unpredictable with government spending, but—
But what does that mean? So does that mean you are going to do some trims; they just won’t be random and unpredictable trims?
Well, we’re always trimming, because the only way we can improve services with only a billion of extra spending is to trim the ones that aren’t working – in fact, shut some of it down – and shift money to where it is working.
But I’m asking you something different to that. What I’m asking you is are you now going to have to plan to trim things that you weren’t intending to trim in order to reach the surplus that you have all but promised us?
Oh, no, we’re not planning that. We’re planning to have a billion of new spending with reprioritisation, better value for money, and we’ll set that plan out in the half-year update.
Plus, half a billion that you’re putting aside for potential tax cuts. But the thing is – since the election, we haven’t really heard a peep out of you about tax cuts, so are they still possible, really?
They’re still possible, and in the campaign, we talked about that in 2017. We’ve got things we need to deal with now – you know, the pressure in the housing market, pay rounds in the public sector. Those will be the focus in the next 12 months.
Alright. And some other significant news this week – we had the Inspector- General Cheryl Gwyn’s report this week into information that was released on Phil Goff regarding an SIS briefing before the 2011 election. Have you read that report?
I have, yeah.
Yes, okay. Well, it finds, as you know, no political collusion, but it says that the Prime Minister’s staff passed information from the Security Service to the blogger Cameron Slater for political purposes. Are you comfortable with that?
Well, there was nothing there that isn’t a lot of the normal business of politics. And, look, I know there’s a strong focus on this at the moment and on what the Prime Minister might not have said. I think the public are going to judge it in the same way they did before the election, and that is they’ll decide for their— they’ll make up their own mind whether they trust the Prime Minister, whether it’s a government that runs focused on their needs, rather than on the politics, and I think they’ll judge that positively, as they did in the election campaign. All these issues were hashed over in great detail before the election. It’s all happening again.
You’ve been in Parliament about 25 years, isn’t it, so I’m asking you – you personally – are you comfortable with that, that this information was used and leaked by the Prime Minister’s staff for political purposes?
It wasn’t leaked. Look, you just saw this week Phil Goff—
It was handed to a blogger...
Well, journalists ring up the Prime—
…for a distinctly political purpose.
Yeah, so can you tell me a journalist has never spoken to a politician and never received information for a political purpose?
This is SIS information, which is what makes this different. So are you comfortable with that?
It was public information. If you can OIA it, it’s public information. And bear in mind here – John Key runs the most transparent government that New Zealand’s ever seen, particularly round intelligence matters. In 25 years, I can recall prime ministers just never talked about this sort of stuff. No one ever got to look at it. He’s opened it up to scrutiny. The fact that we have—
But hang on a minute, Minister—
…the fact that we have a report—
Minister, the Inspector-General has said that Phil Goff, or the leader of any Opposition party, could have an expectation of confidentiality around their briefings and dealings with the SIS.
Well, it was Phil Goff, actually, who went in public to say he hadn’t been briefed. That was an open public discussion. There was nothing secret about it. Look, we can get into all the details of this—
So you’re comfortable with it? That’s basically what you’re telling me – you’re comfortable with it.
It’s part of the business of politics, just like Phil Goff leaking the contents of a report was part of the business of politics. John Key runs a very transparent, open government.
Well, on that subject, Minister, before the election, the Prime Minister had said that the leak of information had, and I’m quoting him here, ‘nothing to do with my office’. The Inspector-General says it was leaked by his office for political purposes. So who do we believe? Who’s telling the truth here?
No, look, again, we can get into all the detail. What the report showed was—
No, I want to get into this detail. I want to know who you think we should believe, whether it’s the Prime Minister, who says, ‘It had nothing to do with my office,’ or the Inspector General, who says, ‘Yep, it was your office, and it was done for political purposes’.
No, that’s not quite correct. What actually happened was – remember, this is a complaint that official information was released too quickly, not that it was hidden, but it was released too quickly. And the report showed very clearly the SIS made their own decisions about the release of that information on their own merits.
But the Prime Minister has categorically said, ‘This had nothing to do with my office’ – the information that was put into the public domain regarding Phil Goff’s briefing .It actually did, and the Inspector-General says, ‘It did. You had staff members who gave it to a blogger.’ So who’s telling the truth?
Well, the report—
Whose version of the facts are the right ones?
The report sets out what happened in detail. Everyone can look at it. The fact that you have an Inspector-General’s report is because John Key introduced the Inspector General precisely to build the confidence here.
Let me ask you a different question – do you accept the findings of the Inspector General’s report? Do you accept it in its entirety?
Yes, but there’s nothing—
Okay, well, that answers the question, doesn’t it?
There’s nothing unusual about politicians—
So the Prime Minister’s wrong. You’ve accepted the report in its entirety, so the Inspector-General’s version of events and conclusions is the correct one?
No, look, you’re dancing on the head of a pin here. The fact is there’s nothing—
No, I’m not, Minister. You can’t have it both ways. You either accept the report and the findings, as you’ve told me you do, or you don’t. And that means the Prime Minister’s version is not correct.
No, I don’t accept that. This whole process has been very transparent. John Key’s answered more questions about more issues to do with this very patiently and politely for several months now. The public, I think, in the election gave a verdict on what they thought of the relevance of that intensive period of focus. I’ve been on the road for a couple of days here. The last couple of days, no one’s raised it with me. I think they’re coming to the same view now, and that is ultimately John Key has been very open with them, answered every question for eight years, and, actually, they trust him. They think he actually runs a pretty fair enough government.
Okay, well, I want to just finish with a couple of very quick questions – two quick questions – for you. Nicky Hager – now, John Key and various National ministers says he was a left-wing conspiracy theorist and accused him of making stuff up. Well, it seems that he was right, so does your party owe him an apology?
No, not at all. If Nicky Hager is horrified that journalists and bloggers talk to politicians and political staff about politics, then he lives on a different planet than everyone who’s done politics for a hundred years.
Okay, have you ever texted Cameron Slater?
Never? Have you received texts from him?
No. I understand he doesn’t like me, and, actually, that seems to be a very big group of people.
Do you think it’s wise for the Prime Minister to still be in text contact with Cameron Slater, then?
Well, look, people make their own mind. There’s no law against the Prime Minister texting a member of the public.
And what do you think personally, though, Minister? What do you think?
Cameron Slater – should he be texting him?
Look, I don’t like the guy. Apparently, he doesn’t like me and a whole lot of other people, but there’s no law against people communicating. And the Prime Minister’s done something no prime minister has before – he released the text.
All right, thank you very much for joining me this morning, Minister. Much appreciated.