Politics

Wellbeing Budget to prioritise mental health

Finance Minister Grant Robertson has confirmed mental health will be one of the Government’s five priorities in its first Wellbeing Budget, during a speech where he pushed back against negative business confidence and calls to lift the country’s debt levels.

Speaking on the first day of the Labour Party’s conference in Dunedin, Robertson outlined the Government’s economic successes so far, focusing on its families package of tax credits and other welfare increases.

But his main push was for what was to come - the first Wellbeing Budget in 2019, a chance to make progress on “changing our yardstick of success”.

“I will still keep a close eye on our finances and a steady hand on the economic wheel. We owe that to future generations. But we also owe to them and to all of our communities the chance to live fulfilling and meaningful lives - and to be valued more than just as numbers on a balance sheet,” Robertson said.

The Government’s Budget Policy Statement next month would also fill out more of the picture, identifying “five core priorities” that would define the Wellbeing Budget.

While he would not go into the details of all priorities, Robertson confirmed mental health would be one of them, to loud applause from the audience.

“The whole point of this is that for too long we’ve measured ourselves on a very narrow basis...so not having every single data point shouldn’t stop us from saying the health of our environment, our people and our communities is as important as our financial wealth.”

Speaking to media afterwards, Robertson said the mental health of young Kiwis was a particular concern - something backed up by a Jacinda Ardern-led panel with young leaders who raised the issue repeatedly.

“Quite clearly the mental health of our young people is a significant issue, one we know that, if we don't get right, it has serious consequences.”

Robertson said there would be an expectation that ministers and agencies worked together to make the greatest impact in the priority areas, rather than operating in individual silos.

He conceded there were risks with the approach, saying the Government still did not have all the data it needed to measure itself across all wellbeing indicators, but said it still had to make a start.

“The whole point of this is that for too long we’ve measured ourselves on a very narrow basis...so not having every single data point shouldn’t stop us from saying the health of our environment, our people and our communities is as important as our financial wealth.”

Battles over business confidence, Budget rules

Robertson also came ready to do battle with the vexed issue of business confidence.

The fundamentals of the economy were strong, he said in his speech: “We have just had the strongest quarter of economic growth in two years. We have a sustainable surplus that is allowing us to invest in infrastructure and keep debt under control.”

He brandished New Zealand’s top spot in the world on freedom from corruption and business friendliness as a counter to business confidence surveys, which reflected the fact “business tends to be a bit more pessimistic when a Government has Labour at its core, despite the economic reality”.

Anybody looking for a hint that Labour would ditch the straitjacket of its Budget Responsibility Rules in the near future would have been left disappointed, with Robertson praising low levels of Government debt as insurance against future shocks.

“Our low levels of debt mean that we have the buffer to respond to an unexpected bill such as supporting farmers to fight Mycoplasma bovis, and it gives us the confidence that we can deal with anything an uncertain global picture, climate change, volatile international markets and trade disputes can throw at us.”

Robertson said there was “a tricky balance to strike” between maintaining a robust economy and making the investment that was required around the country.

There was a nod to sceptics however, with Robertson saying the Government knew it had to strike a balance between “careful management of the economy and making significant investments in our social progress”.

“Previous Labour governments have done it, this coalition Government is doing it, and I know that we can keep doing it.”

He told media afterwards there was “a tricky balance to strike” between maintaining a robust economy and making the investment that was required around the country.

“Labour Party members are extremely ambitious for us and I’ve been with them for years now making this policy, but I think they equally understand that we can’t undo those nine years of neglect in one year, and they’ll keep pushing us to do more and we’ll keep trying to do more.”

Robertson was also on the defensive in his speech over the decision to end offshore exploration permits for oil and gas, saying the Government was taking a “planned and deliberate approach for a just transition”.

“I saw the damage that was done to the community I grew up in here in Dunedin when the Government clicked its fingers and changed economic direction overnight - it is exactly that situation we are seeking to avoid by setting a 2050 goal for a net zero carbon economy.”

Ending oil and gas exploration was not just the right thing to do for future generations, he said, but also “our brand proposition in the world” - a line that may provide more fodder for National MPs who have accused Ardern of being most interested in winning praise from international politicians and media.

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