• A Well-being Budget

    The announcement by the Minister of Finance that the budget he presents next year will be what he described as a “well-being” budget may have been dismissed by Simon Bridges as of no interest and little consequence but it represents, on the contrary, an important break with what has gone before.

    Political announcements about budgets may lead to eyes glazing over for most people, but this one is different. We have had years, not to say decades, of budgets that have focused on the state of the government’s books rather than the health of the wider economy in which we all live and whether that economy is delivering what it should for the people as a whole.

    It was always a curious misapprehension that the main responsibility of a Minister of Finance was to balance the government’s books. The government’s finances are only one part – an important one admittedly – of the total economy; it is perfectly possible (and indeed has been, over a long period, par for the course) to see a preoccupation with the government’s bit of the economy being accompanied by a disappointing performance by all the other bits, the totality of which matters greatly.

    There is little comfort to be gained from a government surplus (so loudly trumpeted over recent years) if at the same time the country is failing to pay its way (as evidenced by a perennial trade deficit). And the point becomes even more telling if the indications about future performance, such as a sluggish growth in productivity, suggest that there is little chance of the real economy shifting up a gear.

    It is therefore a welcome and refreshing change to see a Minister of Finance taking account of how the economy is performing in a wider sense and being willing to look beyond the accountant’s obsession with the financial out-turn in just one part of the economy.

    What, under the new approach now announced, is meant by a “well-being” economy? The first point to register is that it does not imply, as some critics are bound to proclaim, that the government is about to let go control of the government’s finances. On the contrary, the latest Treasury report shows the government’s finances in very good shape, with a healthy surplus.

    What Grant Robertson is saying, however, is that there are other measures of economic performance that should also come into the reckoning. In his willingness to take this wider view, he is, incidentally, reflecting an increasing international interest in measurements other than Gross Domestic Product to tell us about how well we are doing. Many countries are beginning to look at various forms of what might be called “happiness” indices as an alternative to GDP and as a guide to what economic success really means.

    But Grant Robertson has gone further, and has spelt out what he thinks are the important elements of “well-being” that should be taken into account in framing his next budget – and he focuses particularly on those elements that he believes have received inadequate attention in the past.

    He cites, for example, the mental health of our people, particularly young people, and he looks specifically at how we are responding to the environmental challenges we face. He also points, more orthodoxly, to the standards of service delivered by public services such as education, health care and public housing, and indicates correctly that child poverty is a major negative when assessing the economy’s performance.

    A “well-being” budget will, he says, focus on outcomes, and not just on inputs and outputs. It will take a “whole of government” approach to issues such as the skill training of our workforce, the regional disparities we suffer, and the particular needs of Maori and Pasifika – all of which have been neglected to the general detriment for far too long.

    A “well-being” approach promises a welcome change in the way we identify and focus on our economic goals; that change may be the key to doing better than we have so far managed. More power to Grant Roberson’s elbow – his commitment to well-being may well prove to be a welcome New Year present for us all.

    Bryan Gould

    24 December 2018