Alex Penk

By Alex Penk - 28/05/2019

Alex Penk

By Alex Penk -

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Government needs to give answers on “wellbeing”

This week the Government will unveil the first-ever Wellbeing Budget, somewhat breathlessly described by the New York Times as “New Zealand’s next liberal milestone.” The concept of wellbeing is laudable, but at present, we aren’t having a robust national conversation about what enables us to lead good lives. What is currently being said about wellbeing obscures as much as it clarifies.

Wellbeing isn’t only the Budget’s goal. The Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, has said that the Budget is just “one aspect of a wider wellbeing approach,” and the concept seems to be at the heart of the Government’s aspirations to be be transformational. So what is “wellbeing”?

What is currently being said about wellbeing obscures as much as it clarifies.

The idea draws on a variety of sources, including 12 “domains of current wellbeing”—things like health, safety, and social connections, that show whether we’re doing well now—and four “indicators of future wellbeing”—being natural capital, social capital, human capital, and financial and physical capital, that create potential for wellbeing. So far, so good in theory, but as usual the devil is in the detail.

First, there are questions about trade-offs, because resources are finite. The Budget has five priority areas, including “opportunities … to transition to a sustainable and low-emissions economy,” “lifting Māori and Pacific incomes, skills and opportunities,” and “reducing child poverty.” But what if a policy promotes one of these priorities and not others; for example, if banning oil and gas exploration supports a low-emissions future but reduces economic opportunities for local iwi and thereby increases child poverty? Is that a pro- or anti-wellbeing policy?

Lurking even further below the surface are important questions about the role Government should play in our lives.

The answer could be either, or both. Under the surface of the wellbeing approach many practical decisions need to be made. There’s plenty of scope for politics-as-usual too. To see how wellbeing talk doesn’t always equal wellbeing walk, it’s helpful to look to Arthur Grimes, Professor of Wellbeing and Public Policy at Victoria University. As you’d expect from his title, he’s a strong and persuasive advocate for the wellbeing approach. But not only is he sceptical about the wellbeing merits of key Government policies like the Winter Energy Payment, which he called a “poorly performing program”, he was positively scathing about its decision not to implement a capital gains tax in a satirical column entitled, “Wellbeing Govt’s empathy for the rich.”

Lurking even further below the surface are important questions about the role Government should play in our lives. I worry that the unstated assumption of the wellbeing approach is that policy should be the key lever we pull to deliver wellbeing, an approach that could easily become overbearing. Imagine, for example, that wellbeing concerns about health lead the Government to restrict certain types of food. It’s entirely legitimate and important that we debate whether policies like these would promote wellbeing, but at the moment, we’re not.

As an idea, wellbeing has an obvious and natural appeal. As an organising principle for policy, it begs as many questions as it answers. This week’s Budget is a much-needed opportunity for the Government to give us some answers.

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Alex Penk

By Alex Penk -

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