Despite the grim warnings, Finance Minister Grant Robertson is widely expected to pull a rabbit from his hat in the Budget today.
Frankly, I hope he has a very big hat, because
why shouldn’t we expect a lot? Labour governs with an absolute majority, so it can do what it wants. It has led us through the Covid crisis. It has managed, for better and worse, the conjoined catastrophes of inflation and chaotic supply chains. There is reasonable evidence that we are not about to pitch into recession.
There has also been progress in housing, poverty reduction and on some other measures, but it’s not enough. And the big reforms and big projects move slowly, if at all.
Perhaps worst of all, we are socially troubled. It feels like anger flares more quickly now, and more forcefully. A crisis in mental health afflicts everyone from farmers to schoolkids, and we all feel it. Mistrust and misinformation stalk our social interactions. Public confidence in institutions is low.
And the Prime Minister Chris Hipkins believes this calls for “bread and butter” politics.
Why is it time for timidity? We’ve had enough of that. The situation calls for boldness.
1. Bring back Rob Campbell
And put him in charge of restoring frontline health services. Just kidding, I suppose. There’s possibly too much bad blood now. But Campbell is right: our health services are in serious trouble, the priority is on the frontline and it has to be addressed now.
Advertise with NZME.
In the Budget, look for a giant dollar commitment and a clear sign the money will be spent not on structural reform but on doctors and nurses and the work they do.
2. More affordable housing now
Fix housing and you create the essential foundation to address almost every other social need.
The Government knows this and now has record levels of housing construction under way. That’s great. But we also have record levels of emergency accommodation too. Demand grows fast.
Look for funding for construction sector reform, building codes and consenting reform, education and training, supply chain management and, above all, land-use planning.
The private sector, including community-housing providers, should be invited to play a bigger role alongside Kāinga Ora. They’re desperate to do it.
3. Climate, climate everywhere
The Climate Change Commission says the Government is on track to breach its statutory duty to lower emissions. The High Court has even ruled that the Government Policy Statement on Transport doesn’t oblige Waka Kotahi to reduce emissions. These things reveal a weaselly failure to commit to effective climate action and it has to stop.
After this year’s wild-weather ravages, there is surely wide public support for a climate action reset.
So let’s have it: Budget boosts for climate-related reforms in urban design, transport, construction, building retrofits, agriculture, manufacturing and, who could forget it now, disaster planning and response.
Advertise with NZME.
And while long-term projects are needed, the focus should be on the current decade. When it comes to global warming, this is the one that matters most.
4. A bigger hand up
I wrote recently about The Southern Initiative (TSI), a council programme that helps citizens in south Auckland get themselves on the ladder to a higher-wage economy.
Government agencies are already involved in this work, but there is much more to be done. Look for a Budget boost for the “hand up, not hand out” approach across a range of social and economic programmes. It’s hard to think why anyone would want to undermine it.
5. Better benefits
The poverty measures introduced in 2018 show that poverty since then has reduced. But progress has been uneven and can easily be undone.
The groups especially at risk include families that are working but “teetering on the poverty line”, as one researcher puts it; Pacific families and families looking after disabled children or other family members. The Budget should not forget any of them.
6. Tax reform
Despite what they say, it’s never too late to make the tax system better. We know our system gives an easy ride to the super-wealthy and we know this increases the burden on middle New Zealand. Why is it so hard to change that?
This will be a “Wellbeing Budget” that this year we’re supposed to think is also “balanced”. That’s nonsense: “wellbeing” is balance, by definition.
The whole idea of the Wellbeing Budgets is to recognise that economic growth, on its own, is a dangerous yardstick of progress. Other social and environmental factors are critical.
Rabbits in hats are a magic trick and Robertson’s job today doesn’t have to be magic. All he has to do is make the country believe, again, in the reasons it voted so strongly for a centre-left Government in 2020.
Too hard? Take up the fight, Grant. For all our sakes, take up the damn fight.