The Labour-led coalition’s much-touted first ever Wellbeing Budget was out today in Wellington, after a bit of a kerfuffle over a possible sneak preview that the National Party might have had. What exactly happened will come out in the wash over the next week or so – but that’s another story.
The Wellbeing Budget appears to be exactly that: it’s about addressing New Zealand’s long underfunded, even neglected, social sector. It definitely has a discernible left-of-centre flavour, as is to be expected, and seems earnest in its approach to take the big issues that plague mainstream New Zealand head on.
The two main issues the government aims to tackle is mental health and child poverty, which have rightly dominated the public discourse for some years now. It has pledged $2billion for mental health and a billion for child poverty. It has launched a report for the latter, which again is a first for New Zealand.
Addressing the contentious issue of school donations, which are ostensibly voluntary, but when not paid are known to disadvantage pupils, the government has allocated $150 per student in all schools decile 1 to 7, which will benefit some half a million students, to the great relief of their struggling parents.
Another social sector initiative is the departure from indexing the benefit from inflation rate to the minimum wage. This is indeed a game changer for beneficiaries. That would make the beneficiary pay packet about $47 richer a week by the year 2023 than it would have were it linked to inflation. The Budget also predicts a surplus of $6 billion by that year.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that the government has attempted to embed wellbeing at every stage in the Budget.
The social flavour carries into other funding initiatives as well. For instance, public transport, notably Kiwi Rail gets $1billion to boost regional railways and Auckland’s City Rail Link gets some funding to address the budget blow out that was reported earlier in the year.
Other sectors that have had funds allocated are the Defence Forces and the tree planting initiatives – both undoubtedly to keep coalition partner NZ First happy.
Unsurprisingly, the Budget appears to be light on economic growth initiatives. But then as votaries of this Wellbeing Budget might argue, GDP and economic growth are not necessarily drivers of social wellbeing.
The issue here is the measurability of what constitutes “wellbeing”. And how does one put a value on it? Every human endeavour and aspect of human life cannot be measured by a dollar, its adherents would say.
Those arguments would run deep on either side and are best left for another time.
This Budget is a major departure from the status quo, as Finance Minister Grant Robertson said. And the effects of this Budget will be hard to quantify using straightforward dollar-and-cents yardsticks, which will be fodder for endless arguments.
In a sense, the thought and intention behind this Budget are indeed game changing.
A fuller analysis will be published in the next issue.