A national well-being budget

Jul 21, 2022
Quality of life is the general well-being of individuals and societies text
Image: Flickr / Buzzword Bingo / Ron Mader

Every functioning household knows the importance of budgeting. No more so than when hopes, expectations and demands exceed resources available. What is possible at one moment may not be possible at another. A priority at one moment will change in different circumstances. A good budget is one that reflects the values of the household and contributes to its wellbeing. A good budget always has a long view in mind. A nation is a large-scale household. Without values that are well articulated and substantially owned, governmental policy becomes stuck on means – money, rather than the value-based aspirations wealth should resource.

It is therefore with a considerable sense of hope and anticipation we might look forward to Jim Chalmers first budget which, he states, will be set within a values framework and will begin to set economic policy in the context of national wellbeing. When Chalmers first promulgated such a framework, he was mocked by then treasurer Josh Frydenberg in his famous Ashram speech. ̋The member for Rankin is about to deliver his first wellbeing budget. He walks barefoot into the chamber… robes are flowing, incense is burning … beads in one hand, speech in the other … gone are the seats, gone are the benches and in their place, meditation mats for all ̏. One can safely assume the now opposition will be equally deriding.

Apart from Bhutan, countries that have embarked on this journey include Iceland, Finland, and New Zealand. Interestingly Iceland embarked on this journey following its dramatic 2008 global economic crisis collapse. Its successful recovery is attributed to owned values and priorities. Finland is measured as the globe’s most liveable country,

Australia is currently home to approximately 26 million people. Our national politicians have almost exclusively engaged with us in fiscal terms as if economic wealth is the only measure of individual or national wellbeing. It appears to be the only pillar supporting this house – Australia. When he was national treasurer Joe Hockey famously divided Australians between lifters and leaners. Lifters being those who generate money, leaners those who are a cost to the national budget.

Let us understand what we mean by the economy. Its linguistic origins, in Greek, mean ʹhouse rulesʹ, or the business of divvying up resources to cover household activity. ʹEcologyʹ on the other hand with the same linguistic origins means ʹhouse wisdom or knowledgeʹ, how things hold together. Unless we own values upon which our house holds together – wellbeing, economic expenditure will simply be a response to short term populous request, a response which has a single political aim, the return of the treasury bench to another term in government.

Within the confines of a 1000-word blog, may I proffer two values (amongst many others) that should contribute to the values framework in which the October wellbeing budget will be set.

  1. We are all custodians of intergenerational equity

It is normally expected each generation should exceed the general prosperity of those that preceded it. However, there are a variety of reasons for fearing that, from the millennial generation onward, the future may in fact be far less attractive than the past. Decline is difficult to reverse, history shows it invariably heralds civilisation’s ultimate demise. In many first nations cultures ensuring the strength and stability of future generations is amongst the highest of values. The biblical genealogical tradition emphasises the importance of continuity, honouring the past and bequeathing a future.

With this value in mind, the budget must undergird:

  1. Formal education is about equipping young minds for a lifetime of learning. Recent years have seen Australia fall behind international benchmarks. Party politics should play absolutely no part in pedagogical method, curriculum, or educational philosophy. The budget must undergird and develop strategies agreed by the most trustworthy educationalists. Every child must be resourced to their fullest potential.
  2. Climate transition. A changing climate presents a greater economic, environmental, health and cultural threat to future generations than any other single factor. There can be no higher budget priority than to frame all proposed income and expenditure with this threat in mind. The previous government argued that even if this threat was real, reducing the 3% of global emissions attributed to Australia makes virtually no difference. This is hardly the point. As a middle power Australia exerts influence. We must have our house in order to join others in asserting maximum pressure on the global community, rather than behaving as a laggard in that community. As Environment minister, Tanya Plibersek will endure considerable pressure to allow new coal mines, because, as has been argued, they generate royalties that pay down our national debt. This pressure must be resisted because of the legacy of greater indebtedness this inflicts on the future.
  3. Those who have much, do not have too much; and those who have little, do not have too little.

This (biblical) proposition should be considered essential for the long-term stability and harmony of any society. However, at both ends of this spectrum Australia is failing abysmally. At the top of the pyramid, it is obscene that executives can be paid an annual 8 figure sum. No one should be paid 20+ times the salary of their lowest paid employee. (A few are receiving 100 times that salary). The incoming government has been wedged into agreeing tax reductions for the wealthiest quartile. The Howard/Costello government legislated largesse to the wealthiest segment of society which can no longer be afforded. Jim Chalmers will need much courage and informed goodwill to enact overdue reform.

At the bottom of the pyramid many who work in service delivery (Hockey’s leaners), are inadequately remunerated. Why is a skilled nurse, or aid, valued much less than a person working in finance or a trade? (answer – because in a neo-liberal capitalist framework they do not generate money). Why can thousands hold the keys to multiple empty (holiday) homes without redress, while thousands of others are homeless? Why can renters have their tenancies terminated when higher rental is available from holiday lets. At a time when pressure will rightly be exerted to reduce expenditure, Jim Chalmers will need courage to assist various categories of citizens, who have too little.

Josh Frydenberg’s mocking of a values-based, wellbeing orientated, budget was entirely misplaced. It will however require considerable courage and skill to take the country down this overdue path. There is no alternative. Stay as we are, and much needed reform is denied. As trust and respect returns to politics, much needed reform can be enacted. From what we have observed so far, little goodwill will be forthcoming from an Opposition which appears to be modelling itself on Tony Abbott – ʹdisagree with everything, cooperate with nothingʹ. Much will be expected by the Australian community from those in neither major political party to ensure that in the next three years we invest in values which secure a robust just and harmonies future.

Except for those living in poverty, it is the case that there is little correlation between wealth and happiness or wellbeing. Far more significant relational issues are at play. May the national household wellbeing budget wisely reflect these aspirations.

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