What’s the well-being budget all about?.

Associate Professor Grant Duncan is a TEU member at the Massey University Albany campus in Auckland and he takes a look at the well-being budget as a whole.

A Wellbeing Budget is a great idea – a whole lot better than a Competitive-Pursuit-of-Wealth Budget. No one seriously says anymore that GDP growth tells us how well we are really doing! So, the evaluation of public spending and investment against a wide range of wellbeing indicators is a step forward for public policy. All the same, I wasn’t expecting to be wowed by Budget 2019 – and I’m not. The basic appropriations documents look much the same as before. It’s not always clear what the likely impact on wellbeing of classes of spending is expected to be.

Past governments surely would have claimed that their fiscal programme and public services were aimed at the betterment of society and the environment as well as the economy. And this wellbeing approach is another step towards addressing public-management problems that were identified in the late 1990s: the fragmented financing and delivery of public services and their uncertain connection to socially-desirable outcomes. So, what’s new?

Wellbeing is an overarching concept with which to guide multiple departments and votes. It can be parcelled into specific goals, such as “supporting mental wellbeing”, on which agencies can cooperate. So, Budget 2019 provides a stronger rationale for reducing child poverty and investing more in education. Thought of as long-term investments in wellbeing, these budget-lines gain a stronger footing and look less like “costs”. The presentation of the new initiatives reflects this. One could object, then, that this is “merely” presentation and not substance. But this is only the first Budget that emerges from the Treasury’s Living-Standards Framework, and so perhaps let it mature over a few years. Today’s Treasury is certainly not the Treasury of 1987’s neoliberal-reform framework.

The opposition can argue that this Budget fails to deliver on government’s promises, but does that mean that the next National government will willingly spend more than Labour on teachers, social housing and elective surgery? Not likely. The Budget’s main failure, in my eyes, is the low priority accorded to climate-change initiatives, which Jacinda had called “my generation’s nuclear-free moment”. Only some relatively paltry sums for R&D are introduced, plus a toothless Commission to monitor our carbon emissions. If we’re serious about future wellbeing, we need transformational change in energy-sources.

There is an inconsistent application of targets: they are established for child poverty, but not suicide rates. And, on natural capital, there are no estimates of the value of ecosystem services against which we could either evaluate investment or reckon the costs of inaction. Consequently, the environment and our children’s future remain at risk of neglect. It’s akin to failing to appreciate the future worth of the family home, and hence neglecting maintenance.

Budget 2019 has disappointed some commentators for not being “transformational” enough – code for “inadequate funding”. And this leads back to asking, “Where will the revenue growth come from?” Answer: economic growth. Have you ever had that treadmill feeling?