Beyond the verbal smokescreens

By 'Alapasita Pomelile May 26, 2022

Like a party mix lolly bag, the recent Wellbeing budget drew a mixture of delight and displeasure. Any government budget that spends large with a lacklustre track record of deliverables requires closer examination, especially in the absence of media scrutiny.

We’re seeing another case of big bucks and grand hopes wrapped up as a policy.

This budget appeases the financial crush on middle-income with the $1b cost-of-living package. It does, however, raise questions around missed opportunities to bridge gaps for low-income families and communities, like making subsided public transport fares permanent.

There were two key areas laying the foundations for a better future. These are climate change—with a $2.9b package for the first Emissions Reduction draft—and health, gaining $13.2b in funding over four years. Comparable to previous Wellbeing Budgets, we’re seeing another case of big bucks, grand hopes wrapped up as a policy, and focusing on balancing short-term needs with long-term investments.

I’m usually an optimistic person, but the lack of details around these new funding injections has squashed any hope of my being enthusiastic about this budget.

Teacher workforce issues such as burnout … received zilch budgetary or policy attention.

Whenever we spend up large, it pays to read the fine print. This is proving to be challenging with the wishy-washy nature of the budget. There is no mention of the Ministry of Disabled People, or funding for its services in the health budget—despite its announcement in late 2021.

The Pūaotanga review, a report on primary schooling staffing, highlighted funding needs to address multiple issues; understaffing, children-to-teacher ratios, and support for primary school educators working with students with special needs. Recommendations for addressing these issues received $0 of the $2.9b education funding. Similarly, teacher workforce issues such as burnout and more support for a review of initial teacher education, and beginning teachers received zilch budgetary or policy attention.

The grandeur and ceremony of government budgets combined with unbalanced reporting often distracts the public from taking more than a passing interest, let alone reading the details. Yet it doesn’t matter if we, the public, are aware or totally oblivious of budgetary matters, how any government spends the public purse affects us all.

Problems, gaps, and opportunities are spotted in the details.

One Opposition MP put it simply; Governments don’t make money; they spend taxpayers’ money. In other words, the public has more skin in the wellbeing budget game than anyone else.

The details in the budget—both spending and policy—provide a roadmap of funding goals and ambitions. They outline the specifics of funding allocation, success measures, accountability factors, and leadership of new—or rebranded—government programmes.

In many ways, the different aspects of any government budget indicate whether they’re attentive to the needs of the families, communities, and the public they serve—or not. As the saying goes, the devil is in the details.

Problems, gaps, and opportunities are spotted in the details. When any government budget lacks details and there is a lack of mainstream media scrutiny, its in the public’s best interest to look beyond the verbal smokescreens of fluffy budget statements and announcements. We need to know what it is that we’re buying.

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