The Guardian • Issue #2030

A wellbeing budget for Australia 2022-23 and beyond

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2030

Photo: Ryan Wick – (CC BY 2.0)

Our wellbeing as Australians into the future will be determined very much by what is given priority in the national budget. Because a Labor government is now in power a somewhat more optimistic mood may be sensed among the people and even the pundits.

A cynic might question whose wellbeing the government really has in mind. Welfare or neo-liberalism, is that not the question? But the answer should be about how people’s lives have been changed for the better and how we measure that.

The concept of a wellbeing budget as opposed to merely a welfare one seems to have come to Australia from our cousins in Aotearoa/New Zealand just across the Tasman where from 2019 the practice of developing priorities and measuring achievements has involved more “sophisticated” means than just relying the basic on GDP (Gross Domestic Product) outcome.

According to Professor Stephen Bartos, Head of Economics at the University of Canberra, it seems that New Zealand, along with Australia, has a reputation for remarkably enlightened approaches to comprehensive budget presentations so that the wellbeing approach is also known as the “antipodean” approach.

However, as early as 2007, Scotland had developed a total of eleven major outcomes from it budgetary processes ranging from “a globally competitive, entrepreneurial, inclusive and sustainable economy” to children growing up “loved, safe and respected.” The overall process included no fewer than eighty-one measures of improvement such as physical development scores as measures of child wellbeing.

Closer to home, New Zealand has developed its own set of long-term goals. These include transition to a sustainable low emissions economy, developing social and economic opportunities, lifting Maori and Pacific people’s opportunities, reducing child poverty, and improving mental health.

In essence, these commendable priorities could be easily transferred to an Australian context.

Environmental concerns, supported by scientific thinking, are now widespread across the nation. Climate change denial, like anti-vaccination, exists as a minority voice in our society, but the reality remains that governments ignore specialist advice as well as community advocacy at their peril. In Australia’s case, fire, flood and the experience of those closest to the land, in particular rural and remote communities, express their keen awareness of the climate change reality.

Transitioning our economy away from fossil fuel dependency has virtually become a truism, with issues such as timing, support for communities most affected, and ultimately funding being the key challenges that politicians, if not the nation as a whole, need to resolve in a fair and just manner.

Recently, the benefits of immigration have really come to the fore when the “tap was turned off”, so to speak, with the decision to refuse entry to the country to just about anyone during the pandemic. Now there is an employment crisis, particularly for labouring type jobs that were regularly filled by new arrivals or overseas students. Delays in processing refugees, people already here and ready and willing to work, have only exacerbated this problem unnecessarily. Funding to relieve this humanitarian hiatus would actually be an investment with a multiplicity of beneficial returns.

Where are the real needs in our society? It is hard to move beyond the outlook for many who comprise our most treasured resource, namely our children, especially those of First Nations background. And where and how do we start allowing them to achieve their full potential? The pre-eminent demand, often ignored by officialdom, remains in consultation at the community level, simply listening to and working with the people “on the ground” to resolve immediate needs. In a remote First Nations community it may involve harnessing community resources to establish a bilingual education program in the local school or to explore the possibilities for Indigenous tourism in remote locations.

At the very bottom of the social order in Australia languish our First Nations women who suffer the worst rates of violence not just considering Australia but anywhere else in the world. Budgets provide the funding for both the justice and welfare systems which are designed to protect and assist vulnerable people, but where statistics alone demonstrate systemic failure. In fact, in recognition of the plight of First Nations Australians, a means of measuring progress has already been introduced. Around 2007 an assessment we all now know as “Closing the Gap,” was adopted. Actually, this concept was borrowed, not surprising, from our cousins across the Tasman. Despite some criticisms, at the very least the statistics have helped to identify progress or, lamentably, the lack thereof.

Reductions in poverty in socialist or socialist-oriented countries, notably China, Vietnam, and Venezuela, give rise to thoughts about what Australia should be achieving for the poorest across our nation where the alleviation of poverty seems to have stagnated, if not reversed.

A wellbeing budget should rank the most needy citizens as a top priority. Certainly in Australia First Nations women and children, many of whom are facing dire poverty, and often outrageous violence, demand the most humanitarian approach possible to the delivery of services. This entails targeted support for community groups as well as individual families, accompanied by provisions for better trained and qualified support staff with special reference to cultural awareness in particular, especially for protective agencies.

In the consideration of defence allocation in the budget, many people query why Australia stands so near the top of the list among comparable nations. At the same time, many express concern about the minimal returns for such huge outlays. In this context, the intensity, as well as the frequency of natural disasters, has highlighted the need for strengthening our “civil defence” capability as opposed to joining distant conflicts or presenting a militaristic image to nearby neighbours. In this capacity, our soldiers have been warmly welcomed by many communities in distress.

Diversion of funds from defence to health, especially mental health, expenditure along with the increased job creation potential of spending on hospitals, schools and housing would be most welcome but would create other demands, especially on training and the supply of materials.

In reflection, the Scottish budget monitoring experience and the approach in New Zealand/Aotearoa suggest that the benefits from the well-being approach may be incremental and accrue only over the long term, meaning a decade or so with the need for fine tuning along the way. But these approaches do ensure the inclusion of humanitarian elements in a national budget and the provision of a means of measuring benefits.

Ultimately, the concept of wellbeing should embrace a wider vision and extend beyond introspection and self-interest, so that our foreign aid allocations become part of an extended outreach program of international friendship, possibly modelled on the Cuban doctors and teachers and their overseas work, even here in Australia, especially amongst our First Nations people. Possibly a revived Colombo Plan style operation, funded by a growing rather than shrinking foreign aid program should be another priority.

In the first instance, let’s make amends with Timor L’este in the promotion of international friendship with nations in our neighbourhood and, in addition, set an example to the world in our committed support for United Nations agencies and their humanitarian work.

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