As the dust settles after last week’s budget (or should that be on last week’s budget), it has been hard to find any commentators who thought it was “transformational”. Those who might be identified as Left-leaning didn’t break into raptures; some who claim to be independent (Duncan Garner, for example) were critical (“what should have been a triumph became a nightmare”); and on the right a headline over a Matthew Hooton essay (“Well-being just Wellington BS”) was fairly typical.
Of course, there were some like Audrey Young in the NZ Herald who thought it was a “marketing triumph for Ardern and Robertson so far”, although she sensibly applied a caveat that slow growth “could nix feel-good factor of the well-being Budget”.
Across the Tasman, commentary on the NZ budget was highly laudatory, particularly from those pundits who were still red-faced from predicting a Labour shoo-in at the Federal election.
Further afield, the commentary was more clear-eyed. In the UK, the New Scientist headlined their report “NZ Budget wants to make people happy, not rich—will it work?”.
As for Grant Robertson’s claim that “we said we would change things—and we have”, the New Scientist noted NZ is actually not the first country to prioritise wellbeing. The Kingdom of Bhutan has discussed the need to value happiness over economic growth since the 1970s and made it official with its “gross national happiness index” in 2008.
After a 2009 report commissioned by the then-president Nicholas Sarkozy, the French launched a well-being framework that led to ongoing tracking of “new indicators of wealth”. These include poverty, education, healthy life expectancy, income inequality and carbon footprint.
The UK also had a short-lived attempt at bringing well-being to the forefront under former prime minister David Cameron. While it hasn’t overtaken GDP in budget discussions, the UK’s Office for National Statistics continues to track well-being, giving useful insights into the population’s life satisfaction, happiness, employment levels and more.
The New Scientist quotes Ardern as saying: “Today we have laid the foundation for not just one well-being budget, but a different approach for government decision-making altogether,”.
The goal is to downplay the importance of gross domestic product (GDP), a measurement of country’s economic activity that is normally seen as a key indicator of success.
But despite what Ardern and her team suggest, no budgets are solely about GDP.
The New Scientist quotes a leading NZ economist Arthur Grimes: “All budgets in pretty much all developed countries are well-being budgets,”.
Grimes notes that the definition of well-being is welfare, and virtually every budget allocates money to services such as poverty, mental health and housing.
Grimes is also sceptical about how well-being will be measured, with around 60 different indicators proposed. “In my view that’s a really scattergun approach,”.
Child poverty is the only metric being tracked, he says, making it difficult to assess whether the budget will achieve what it is designed to do.
One way of tracking well-being is to ask people how they rate their lives overall. But a limitation is that it might take several years for policies to shift the population’s aggregated well-being up or down compared to other countries – beyond the short time-frame politicians operate in.
As others see it, the problem with placing well-being at the heart of the budget is whether the government – even where it has increased budget allocations substantially, as for mental health – can galvanise the bureaucracy to actually find the people, the skills and the full range of resources to reach its targets.
Its record with KiwiBuild, for example, doesn’t inspire confidence.
And then there is the criticism expressed by Peter Griffin in his column for the Dominion-Post:
“More than halfway through its first term, it is clear that the Labour-led coalition doesn’t have a vision for how science can transform an economy”.
Griffin noted there was a handful of science-line items offering welcome investment in renewable energy research, the initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, and the effort to stop kauri dieback – but there was no substantive new funding for the fundamental research that could actually transform the economy.
Nor, he might have added, to transform well-being.