Winners, losers and wellbeing.

 

“Who are the winners and losers here? What does it mean for me?” That was a question from the floor as the Minister of Finance outlined the “Wellbeing Budget”. It’s a fair question. An obvious one. And it totally missed the point.

A MID-YEAR FISCAL UPDATE.

I was lucky enough to be invited to a mid-year fiscal update from the Minister of Finance. It was hosted by BNZ. If you’re wondering about my definition of “lucky”, I completely understand. I wasn’t brimming with enthusiasm on the way in, but I actually really enjoyed it. And I genuinely felt lucky by the end of it. Here’s why.

WHAT’S A “WELLBEING BUDGET”?

That was essentially the question of the day. Explaining, exploring and understanding the focus of the Government’s budget. Rather than a traditional outline of the numbers and what they mean, there was far more focus on people and how they’re doing.

So far, so socialist. And exactly what you’d expect from a Left-leaning Finance Minister and a centre-left Government. But the Wellbeing budget was more than that. It wasn’t so much about left or right. More about right and wrong.

SUMMARY: WE’RE DOING OKAY.

Financially we’re doing okay. GDP is good. Employment is good. We’re kicking along really nicely. Obviously there’s some global stuff that could tip over the apple cart at any moment. But basically the numbers are sound.

Measuring success through money is an easy thing to do. You’ve got some or you haven’t and there are stacks of financial indicators that help you tell the story. But what reasonable human being measures success through money? It’s about more than that. Are you happy? Are you healthy? Are you excited about tomorrow?

REALITY: WE’RE NOT SO HOT.

Super high house prices are great for home owners. But our homeless stats are off the charts. 3% wage inflation is nice if you’re earning. But will today’s jobs still be there tomorrow? 4% GDP talks to success. World-leading suicide rates are telling a different story. Our horrific rates of domestic violence are nothing we’re proud to talk about. And 100,000 Kiwi kids without enough money for food is another dirty little secret that wasn’t reflected in the top-line numbers. Until now.

THE ‘WELLBEING BUDGET’ IS ABOUT COUNTING WHAT COUNTS.

The ‘Wellbeing Budget’ is designed to count the things that really count. Money is an important factor. But it also considers ‘Social Capital’, ‘Human Capital’ and ‘Natural Capital’. All things that make New Zealand one of the best places in the world to live. All things we need to protect and improve on.

INPUTS, OUTPUTS AND OUTCOMES.

The Minister described the ‘Wellbeing Budget’ as ‘outcomes-based’. So far, so much jargon. But then he went on to clarify. Inputs are what you put in (usually cash). Outputs are what you get out (5,000 front-line cops, 10,000 hip operations or 100,000 houses.) Outcomes are what happens next. Can 5,000 cops stop domestic violence? Will 100,000 houses bring kids out of poverty? These are the actual questions we all want to answer and these are the questions being asked in the budget.

WE CAN ONLY MOVE THE DIAL BY WORKING TOGETHER.

Togetherness is still a little socialist. But it’s also very pragmatic. If we work together on the problem we’re trying to solve, maybe we’ll get closer to solving it. Take the example of domestic violence. Will more front-line police move the dial? In part, yes. Will investment in the Justice system break the cycle? In part, yes. But it’s harder than that. More police? More social workers? Which works best? That’s why cross-Government teams are working together to solve the problem we face. And if they don’t, won’t or can’t work together, they’re far less likely to be funded. That’s outcome-based fiscal policy in action.

HEALTH, WEALTH AND HAPPINESS.

Pick any fairy story and the heroes end up healthy, wealthy and wise. Sometimes they only pick two – but it’s never the money. So is the ‘Wellbeing Budget’ a fairy story? I don’t think so.

My quote of the day came from the Minister. In answering a question from the floor he simplified the whole lot like this: “It’s all about who we are as Kiwis,” he said, “Of course we work hard and make money and build a lifestyle. But we also stand up for what’s right. We all believe in fairness – and family always comes first. The Wellness Budget is the Government saying the same thing.”

I’m sure I’ve misquoted him, but that was the gist – and that was the point. We’re doing okay as country. From a cash point of view, we’re pretty well off. All the fancy graphs are pointing in the right direction.

But there are things that aren’t right. There are things we need to fix and there’s big picture challenges we need start solving. The ‘Wellness Budget’ has listed these out. We’re counting them. And we’re working together on outcome-based initiatives to fix them. It’s not about winners or losers. It’s not about tax and spend. It’s about fronting up to the things we need to work on – and pushing them to the top of the list.

And left, right or whatever your politics, I reckon that’s the right thing to do.

 
Michael Goldthorpe