It's Not Just the Economy - Stupid!

In the wake of the New Zealand federal budget CCA CEO David Crosbie imagines an Australia where governments also set targets that relate to the kind of Australia we want to live in, Pro Bono News, 24 May

It’s Not Just the Economy – Stupid!, Pro Bono News, 24 May 2018

As post federal budget debate collapses into competing tax plans, there has never been a better time to consider if there might be a different way of setting budget priorities for our nation, beyond the tax plans, the new spending programs and economic indicators.

Thankfully, our neighbours across the ditch are already offering a new approach worth considering. It is grounded in creating the kind of communities we would want to live in. Sound familiar?

When the Community Council for Australia first brought leaders in the charities sector together at the National Portrait Gallery to workshop the kind of Australia we wanted to live in, some were sceptical that such an approach had any merit. At the time, public discourse was focused on “team Australia” with a government keen to foster increased business investment.

It was CCA chair Tim Costello who best highlighted what most of our charity leaders were thinking when he said: “Many discussions about Australia’s future are focused on our economy, not our lives, our relationships or the country we want to live in.”

The charity leaders agreed on a set of core values they felt should be prioritised in the Australia we want: just, fair, safe, inclusive, equality of opportunity, united, authentic, creative, confident, courageous, optimistic, generous, kind, and compassionate. Drawing on key statistics from the OECD, ABS and the AIHW, measures were agreed for each of these values. For instance – just was measured by incarceration rates; fair was measured by income inequality; safe by feeling safe walking alone at night; etc. The resulting Australia We Want first report generated significant discussion about the kind of Australia we want to live in.

This kind of report into the quality of Australian life may seem a very long way from a federal budget, but not if we adopt a New Zealand approach.

On 17 May, New Zealand’s finance minister, the Hon. Grant Robertson, handed down the first budget of the new Ardern government. What was remarkable about this budget speech was the focus on building not just a stronger economy, but the kind of New Zealand we would want to live in:

“… It is clear to me that no one in New Zealand wants a society where people have to live in a car or on the street, where children go to school with no shoes or no lunch, where our transport systems are clogged, our hospitals unhealthy, our prisons overflowing, and our education system overwhelmed.

“Yet, despite our solid economic growth, that is the place New Zealand finds itself in today. It is not the New Zealand way and it is not acceptable to this government. Our plan will grow and share our prosperity, so that our whole society is lifted up, and everyone has access to good quality healthcare, education, housing, and other social services.

“That is why, in this budget, the government is prioritising those investments that will rebuild the critical social and physical infrastructure in New Zealand, and address the long-term challenges we face.”

This budget speech was not just about putting a new spin on various tax policies or spending measures, it also set measurable targets in important areas including; incarceration rates, child poverty and greenhouse gases amongst others:

“This government is committed to doing things differently when it comes to criminal justice. We know that the approach that has delivered to New Zealand one of the worst incarceration rates in the world, cannot go on. Our goal is to stop the spiralling prison population and reduce it by 30 per cent over the next 15 years…

“This government is committed to a bold plan to reduce poverty and material hardship for our children, so that New Zealand truly becomes the best place in the world to be a child. The initiatives we have already put in place will lift tens of thousands of children out of poverty. But we know that we have more to do. The prime minister’s Child Poverty Reduction Bill is at the heart of our plan. It requires a strategy with bold new targets to be set to reduce child poverty over 10 years. We want to ensure constant progress towards improving the lives of children in New Zealand…

“This government wants to be a world leader on climate change in urgently reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases. We will introduce a legally binding emissions reduction target and emissions budgets to keep New Zealand on track to this goal. We will establish an Independent Climate Commission to recommend emissions budgets and provide advice. It is possible and necessary for New Zealand to transition to our goal of a net zero emissions economy by 2050. This will require some major changes, but we can do this if we work together…”

What is even more exciting to those of us focused on building flourishing communities is the approach the New Zealand finance minister foreshadowed for the 2019 budget:

“We have already signalled our intention to take a wellbeing approach to Budget 2019….These changes are about measuring success differently. In the past we have used GDP and traditional fiscal indicators as the only signs of success. And yet, real success means much more for New Zealand and New Zealanders. Of course, a strong economy is important. But we must not lose sight of why it is important. And it is most important for allowing us all to have better lives.

“That is why our government is making a formal change to move beyond narrow measures of economic growth and broaden the scope and definitions of progress and success. Next year we will be the first nation in the world to deliver a Wellbeing Budget reporting our annual progress against a range of measures that highlight the health and well-being of our people, our environment and our communities. We will use the Living Standards Framework developed by the New Zealand Treasury to help develop our budget, and to measure our success.”

The Living Standards Framework is a very impressive and comprehensive set of indicators that includes core measures very similar to those in the Australia We Want report such as: incarceration rates, suicide rates, educational attainment, housing affordability, feeling safe walking alone at night, etc.

In the foreword to the Australia We Want report, Tim Costello said: “Imagine an Australia where incarceration rates are falling, where the suicide rate is less than the road toll, where levels of violence against women and children have been significantly reduced? Imagine an Australia where your postcode or cultural identity does not define your chance of getting an education or a job or living a long life?”

I like to imagine an Australia where governments set targets that are not just about the economy, targets that relate to the kind of Australia we want to live in.

New Zealand is doing more than imagining, it is measuring.

If the sum of our lives, our relationships, our communities is more than can be measured in economic units, we should never again accept a budget like the federal budget of 2018.