In contrast, the Coalition Government’s 2019 Wellbeing Budget parked an overused word right where it belonged. For the first time, we had a Budget that promised to set its sights beyond GDP growth; it would encompass indicators such as mental health, child poverty, water quality, the cost of housing, even voter turnout. These so-called “softer” indicators would be grouped, along with traditional productivity and growth targets, into four types of capital: financial, social, natural and human.
The Wellbeing Budget was delivered in May, but its aspirational targets came bouncing back for me in late November. It started at a Trans-Tasman Business Circle breakfast briefing on the “Future of Work”, with the Prime Minister presenting to a packed conference room.
I’m not sure I emerged a lot wiser about the future of work, as predicted by those monitoring the rise of the robots, and question-time for Jacinda Ardern focused more on employers having problems finding workers. There lies a tension between business and this government’s wellbeing agenda. Industry, naturally, wants willing workers as cheap as possible. It says migrant workers best tick those boxes. But new migrants need housing and transport (both already scarce and expensive); they put additional pressure on health, education and other social services, even as they help prop them up. And although unemployment may be running at just 4.2%, that doesn’t reflect the low-paid and precarious nature of many New Zealanders’ working lives.
Just once, Ardern’s voice took on a frosty edge. A construction industry executive asked, in essence, “What are you going to do about the labour shortage?” Having already outlined the government’s investment in skills action plans and the power of the collaborative approach – employers, workers and government pulling together – the Prime Minister lobbed the question right back: “What are you doing about it?” Okay, it may have been phrased more like, “What are you doing to support skills development domestically?” But the message was clear.
Meanwhile, income inequality remains stubbornly high. And how many of our new immigrants, I wonder, end up joining the ranks of the working poor?
Back at the office, I began editing Renee Liang’s essay A Kete Half Empty, about child poverty in New Zealand (see North & South's January 2020 issue). Liang is a paediatrician, as well as an award-winning writer.
Poverty, with its long, dream-choking reach, walks through her clinic doors every day: parents and children trapped in a downward spiral of health due to the effects of poverty. And being poor simply makes people sicker, be it from damp and overcrowded housing, lack of quality food or distance from centralised services that might offer a hand-up.
The Wellbeing Budget bumped up beneficiaries’ payments by $17 a week. I spent that on my way home that November day on fancy espresso coffee. Later, I checked average rents in South Auckland (stupidly high) and tried to figure out how much beneficiaries and low-wage earners might have left for groceries each week (bugger all). On Saturday, I made my husband come with me to a supermarket in a low-income suburb. I said we had $75 to spend. We were arguing before we left the produce department. “You can’t get bagged salad greens.” “We’d waste most of a head of lettuce.” “But lettuce is a silly choice on a budget.”
We were distracted by a kerfuffle in the fruit area. That’s when I saw the sign: “Bananas, 99c a kilo”. People were ripping the lids off boxes and grabbing bunches. So how about that? Poor people buy fruit when it’s cheap. Renee Liang wouldn’t be surprised. She sees struggling Kiwi families who simply don’t have the money to “eat properly” and end up choosing volume over quality.
At the Business Circle briefing, Ardern’s sincerity was palpable when she said: “Fairness and looking after one another – a sense of social justice – has always driven me. And it’s also good for the economy.”
I like that we have a “world-first” Wellbeing Budget. It just needs to go further, faster, bolder. On that $17 for starters. One weekend in November, it bought a lot of bananas. Otherwise, it’s chump change.