Next month marks the 2nd year of Arden’s first “wellbeing budget.” This move aims to boost economic metrics such as GDP by using a much broader range of outcomes—including human health and safety to assess the success of policies.
The move was greeted with international fanfare. And in the UK, Labour’s leadership has said it is examining similar plans.
But has the approach worked?
By many measures, New Zealanders’ well-being is still faltering. Suicide rates have barely flickered. Housing is increasingly unaffordable and progress to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is slow.
The data released in recent weeks shows an increasing wait time for young people to access mental health care, which surged since Labour’s election.
“It was marketing as opposed to substance,” says Arthur Grimes, former chief economist at the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, and now a professor of wellbeing and public policy at Victoria University School of Government.
“But it came at a time when several other governments were so clearly not prioritizing people’s wellbeing that it looked like something novel and new and grand,” Grimes added.
Contrary to popular reporting, Grimes says New Zealand’s wellbeing budget was by no means the first in the world.
He points to frameworks such as Bhutan’s Happiness Index or the Welsh Wellbeing of Future Generations Act.
More broadly, he says the words wellbeing and welfare are in essence identical in meaning – and while “wellbeing” might be a fresher arrival on the scene, welfare has long been core to the way many governments choose priorities and form legislation.
But the fact it’s not new doesn’t mean the idea is without value. The wellbeing budget was presented at a time when many leaders “seemed to be going in the opposite direction,” Grimes says.
Having governments committed to prioritizing wellbeing in a measured and accountable way is certainly better than the opposite.
New Zealand’s 2020
New Zealand has skimmed, relatively unscathed, though some of the very bleakest moments of the late 2010s, even as many affluent nations stumbled.
It dodged the rise of populist and neo-authoritarian leaders, avoided mass death from the pandemic.
Many countries have observed dramatic declines in trust –– especially in institutions and governments – but New Zealand’s has risen.
Its successes prompted a slew of international headlines that evoke a kind of affable socialist-lite paradise: one that’s always serenely pursuing a four-day week, a steadily-climbing minimum wage, a “politics of kindness.”
But the country still struggles with deep-seated social problems. The issues seem incongruous with its strengths: growing inequality; high rates of child poverty.
The worst youth suicide rate in the developed world; stilted progress on climate change.
Its housing affordability crisis has become one of the worst in the world and has countless flow-on effects.
The waiting list for public housing has hit an all-time high, with 20,000 families waiting for a home.
This is four times what it was when Labour was elected in 2017.
In the end, New Zealand’s response to Covid-19 might end up being the most enduring and transformative moment of Labour’s commitment to wellbeing in the policy.
“There was a dichotomy that was set up at the time between health and the economy,” says microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles.
Wiles is one of the key communicators of New Zealand’s Covid response. “But people are the economy.”