Real Budget delivered under ‘hack’ shadow

The Government’s inaugural Wellbeing Budget delivers in a number of areas where its voters have agitated for action, but is short on true surprises – and the dramatic “hack that wasn’t” cast an unavoidable shadow over proceedings, as Sam Sachdeva writes.

A Wellbeing Budget, or a merely whelming one?

Compared with the hoopla heading into Thursday – both intended and inadvertent – the actual contents (at least, those we hadn’t already been told about) were neither a pleasant nor unpleasant surprise.

As flagged well in advance, mental health was one of the big winners as the Government put its money where its mouth was in responding to the Mental Health and Addiction Inquiry.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson trumpeted the injection of over a billion dollars into the sector, with the most significant chunk - $455.1 million over four years – going towards a new “universal frontline service”.

Given its pre-election focus on the strain being placed on mental health services, and the emphasis on the area as one of its five Wellbeing Budget priorities, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her Cabinet simply had to deliver a meaningful amount of money.

Another of the Government’s numerous taskforces, the Welfare Advisory Expert Group, is responsible for the decision to index benefits to average wage increases from April 2020 – a move Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft described as the single best thing the Government could do to tackle child poverty.

The decision, which will cost $320.2 million over four years, may go some way to easing the anger felt by some over what they deemed an inadequate response to the review’s sweeping recommendations.

Another dissatisfied segment of Labour’s voter base, the Māori community, have at last received a targeted funding increase following last year’s insistence from Ardern and Robertson that a rising tide would lift all boats.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a coalition Budget without at least one initiative that can be proclaimed as a New Zealand First “win”

An $80 million boost over four years for Whānau Ora, which has at times seemed under threat from the scepticism of New Zealand First, will not alleviate all the pressure on the Government – and Labour’s Māori caucus – to deliver for their constituents.

But coupled with some funding increases for te reo Māori programmes and broadcasters, it will at least send a signal that targeted support is not a no-go zone, and that the “Māori and Pasifika aspirations” wellbeing priority is not an empty gesture.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a coalition Budget without at least one initiative that can be proclaimed as a New Zealand First “win” – in 2019, that’s a $1b boost for KiwiRail over the next two years for new wagons and locomotives, as well as investments in tracks and other infrastructure.

Helpfully for Peters’ party, $300m is coming from the Provincial Growth Fund which will help Shane Jones in his bid to somehow spend a billion dollars each year – although there are certain to be questions about value for money, as well as how this really fits into a wellbeing lens.

Sandwiched between the meat of the Government’s first Budget and the various lollies it will surely dispense to the electorate before next year’s election, 2019 was perhaps always unlikely to seem a little less nourishing in comparison.

But it seems to be the first Budget in some time where the most significant announcement came outside of the Beehive “lock-up” – in the form of Treasury’s acknowledgement of, and National’s triumphalism over, the fact that the so-called “hack” of Budget information in the days beforehand was anything but.

Treasury Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf lurked towards the back of the Banquet hall, perhaps chastened by Robertson’s proclamation he was “very disappointed” in the Treasury’s failure to check its facts before reporting the leak to police – although he did offer a coy wave in response to a journalist’s (inaccurate) question about his absence.

Gabriel Makhlouf (left) lurked at the back of the hall. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Robertson was predictably keen to avoid an extended questioning about the matter, telling journalists they would be able to grill him later in the day, but there can be no doubt that the Finance Minister will be furious with Makhlouf stepping all over his big day.

The Treasury Secretary’s refusal to answer questions from media, instead departing the lock-up, was understandable but will almost certainly be the main image on the TV bulletins tonight.

Of course, there are bigger issues at play for New Zealand than a political bungling of an embarrassing security flaw (although that bungling will need to be accounted for, both by the Treasury and Government and through a State Services Commission review).

The Government’s wellbeing focus has at times felt like more of a branding exercise than a transformational change, but its true success or failure can only be judged in the longer term.

Budget 2019: Read more

A budget of knotty contradictions

Pin the tail on the donkey with gun buyback costs

Devil’s in the detail for big water plan

Rod Oram: Long on rhetoric, short on transformational funding

What the Wellbeing Budget should have said

Kids in schools? How the Budget will affect you

Mental health gets long-overdue cash injection

Transport spend-up, housing flat

Rail infrastructure gets a boost

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