New Zealand—famously home to one of the world’s youngest leaders and the musical giants Flight of the Conchords—can’t seem to move out of the media spotlight in recent months.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been heralded the world over for her firm but compassionate response to domestic terrorist attacks and her uncompromising ability to combine high office with being a new mother.
And with the release of her government’s 2019 budget, outlining plans to spend billions of dollars—just under a fifth of total budget allocations—on supportive programmes to tackle child poverty, suicide rates, homelessness and mental health issues, this month appears to be no different.
NZ$1.3bn ($860m) will be spent on plans to help vulnerable children, transform the care and youth justice systems and “ensure that young people do not fall through the cracks”. NZ$320m ($211m) will be spent on tackling family violence, and NZ $880m ($580m) will be spent on a mental health package—strengthening frontline services and treating drug and alcohol addictions.
Within this, hundreds of millions of dollars have been set out to help those in the “missing middle”, defined as people in the country that suffer from mild to moderate anxiety but don’t require hospitalisation. The budget will also allocate an additional NZ$480m ($315m) to programmes to increase the amount and availability of social housing for homeless people.
Grant Robertson, New Zealand’s minister of finance, explained his administration’s position in a speech to the country’s parliament.”In the election that led to the formation of this Government New Zealanders were asking a core question: If we have declared success because we have a relatively high rate of GDP growth, why are the things that we value going backwards like child wellbeing, a warm, dry home for all, mental health services or rivers and lakes that we can swim in?
“And the answer to that question was that the things that New Zealanders valued were not being sufficiently valued by the government. And because they were not being valued they were not being measured, and because they were not being measured, they were not being done.”
In other words, the country has pledged to use focus taxpayers’ money on promoting personal well-being rather than economic growth.
This is a necessary intervention: Research by the Nuffield Trust reveals that New Zealand has the highest rate of suicide among 15-24 year olds in the ‘developed’ world and one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy and asthma deaths globally.
Similarly, The Guardian reports that 27% of children in the country live in poverty, and that police in the country respond to a domestic violence incident every four minutes.
New Zealand political commentator Duncan Grieve wrote in The Spinoff that the budget was the antithesis of gross domestic product (GDP) thinking, by moving a judgement of government success away from one cold number to a wide-ranging basket of things. He also added that the budget has the potential to “transform the practice of politics” in New Zealand.
New Zealand may not be the first country to recognise, or measure, the impact of well-being. But it may well be the first country to explicitly make well-being central to a national budget and to do so in express opposition to unfettered growth.