Finance Minister Grant Robertson proudly proclaimed to a Wellington business audience this week that the Labour-led coalition “is getting on with the job of starting to fix the long-term challenges facing NZ and providing opportunity for all”.
He insists the “Wellbeing Budget” he will present later this month is about a new approach to tackling these challenges. His priorities, he says, are clear – the government is:
• Taking mental health seriously,
• Breaking the cycle on child poverty and domestic violence,
• Investing in crucial national infrastructure, like building new hospitals and schools; while
• Managing the books responsibly, and
• Addressing long-term economic challenges like building a sustainable economy and preparing for the jobs of the future.
He sensibly inserted a caveat: it’s a first attempt at a wellbeing budget
“ … and we are not going to get things 100% right the first time around. Governments have been preparing budgets the same way for decades, so this is a significant change. But we are learning throughout this process and will look to improve it over years to come”.
Just as well, perhaps, since Opposition Leader Simon Bridges was seeking to rain on the Robertson parade. He issued a press statement pointing out the PM and Robertson had last year launched the ‘Business Partnership Agenda’ which they said ‘brings together the strands of this government’s economic strategy’.
“Since then the Prime Minister and her Finance Minister haven’t mentioned the agenda once. Not in a speech, a press release or even a tweet. The website hasn’t been updated since it was launched. It still lists the Chief Technology Officer as a government initiative, despite the idea being axed in September last year. Eleven of the website links on the page don’t even work.”
Bridges rubbed it in by saying this is a government with no economic plan: the “Business Partnership Agenda” was clearly made up on the hoof and then forgotten about after the daily news cycle. “All talk, no action”.
So Robertson will have to be on his game when he presents the budget. He says the government will measure its success by how well it improves the living standards and wellbeing of all NZers.
“Yes, we need prosperity, but we also need to care about how we sustain and maintain that and who gets to share in it. In order to succeed in this, we need all the tools available to the government to consider wider wellbeing outcomes, to ensure that everything the government does is done explicitly to improve the lives of NZers.
“The government does not dictate a person’s wellbeing. But if we make improving wellbeing our purpose then we have a decent shot at helping improve the lives of all our people”.
NZ still has thousands of young people not in employment, education or training. The home ownership rate has fallen to its lowest rate in over 60 years.
NZ has one of the highest youth suicide rates in the OECD. Hundreds of thousands of children are growing up in poverty. And Māori and Pasifika continue to experience poor outcomes.
“For me, a simple growth rate is just not sufficient to tell us what success looks like”.
The Finance Minister goes on:
“There are three fundamental elements to our wellbeing plan.
“First, a whole-of-government approach. This is about stepping out of the silos of agencies and working together to assess, develop and implement initiatives to improve wellbeing.
“Secondly, a wellbeing approach means looking at inter-generational outcomes. We have to think about the long-term impacts on future generations at the same time as meeting the needs of the present.
“Thirdly, we need to move beyond narrow measures of success. The Treasury’s Living Standards Framework is at the core of our approach to this Budget, but the government also has other success measures to draw on as well, such as child wellbeing and poverty indicators, and Statistics NZ’s Indicators Aotearoa NZ.
“Taken together, these are steps forward in giving ourselves a much richer picture of how we are tracking as a country. Ultimately the wellbeing approach still needs to help us make better decisions, identifying trade-offs and balancing outcomes”.
So what’s the essence of the new plan? Robertson sees a wellbeing approach as recognising and weighing up the overall pros and cons of government policy on all of the things that enable New Zealanders to live lives of purpose and value. The job is to ensure that the whole system of government is geared towards improving wellbeing and living standards.
“The focus at budget time is on new spending, but there is much to do to make sure that the baseline and core expenditure is aligned to our goals. I will have more to say about this in the coming weeks, but we have to ensure our legislative framework, planning, reporting and accountability arrangements shift to support the wellbeing approach.
“Functionally, this requires a different approach to the way budgets have been done in the past. Previous budgets have essentially been a contestable fund. Individual agencies would develop and submit bids. The Finance Minister and a small group of other Ministers then made relatively arbitrary decisions on what would and wouldn’t be funded.
“So what is different about this budget?Fundamentally, this year we have taken a much more strategic approach to the budget’s development and production. The budget priorities have been developed on the basis of a wellbeing analysis.
“We have looked at the evidence to assess where we have the greatest opportunities to make a difference to New Zealanders’ wellbeing and we have focused our efforts on those opportunities”.
To inform this analysis the government has drawn on demographic and other data from the Treasury’s Living Standards Framework dashboard, as well as other evidence and advice from science advisors and other sector experts. This information does not necessarily tell us what interventions should be made, but it shines a powerful light on where interventions are most needed, and where the biggest difference can be made.
The Wellbeing Budget priorities developed from this approach are:
- Creating opportunities for productive businesses, regions, iwi and others to transition to a sustainable and low-emissions economy;
- Supporting a thriving nation in the digital age through innovation, social and economic opportunities;
- Reducing child poverty and improving child wellbeing, including addressing family violence;
- Supporting mental wellbeing for all New Zealanders, with a special focus on under 24-year-olds; and
- Lifting Māori and Pacific incomes, skills and opportunities.
“These represent some of the biggest long-term challenges and opportunities that we face as a country. They will not be solved in one go. These are obviously complex, multi-faceted issues, requiring sustained attention and a collaborative, joined-up government”.
Earlier in his speech Robertson had noted the gap between rhetoric and reality was in many senses the defining issue of the 2017 election, and what led to the formation of the Coalition Government.
“This gap between rhetoric and reality, between haves and have-nots, between the elites and the people, has been exploited by populists around the globe.
It is a long-term view of mine, and the parties that make up this government, that we need to close this gap in an inclusive, not exclusive way, because it is the right thing to do and because we need to do so to ensure the public keep faith and trust in government”.
So as the country awaits this revolutionary new approach, let’s hope the gap between rhetoric and reality doesn’t stretch any wider.
Given the government’s reluctance to make the tax system “fairer”, the growing number of homeless, its bungled KiwiBuild programme, and the still high levels of child poverty, there’s a fair bit hanging on the “well being” to be delivered in the budget.