It's the economy, stupid. Bill Clinton's famous 1992 campaign theme is political lore now: we value all sorts of things a government can influence, but what truly informs our vote is how well off we think we will be. Just ask the Australians who elected Scott Morrison.
So what does that mean for a "Wellbeing Budget"? Is it even possible to broaden the goals of financial planning beyond ledgers of income and expenditure?
Of course it is. But it ain't easy. Responses to the Budget this week have focused almost entirely on how much money will be spent on what items. Very little attention has been paid to the "wellbeing" framing, and often, when it does come up, there's a kind of head-scratching confusion.
Why is that? We all understand perfectly well that environmental and social values are important to us, but it's hard to grasp what that means in budget terms. So we fall back on the numbers.
Don't get me wrong, it's quite proper for everyone to want to know how much money the Government will spend on this target or that. Proper also to know how the various economic indicators are tracking. Debt and surpluses, employment, GDP and more: they're valuable measures, one way or another.
The Government has the whole year to jabber away about the wonderfulness of its programme. The Budget is the time when it puts its money where its mouth is.
And yet, as we fixated on the numbers, what got overlooked?
Finance Minister Grant Robertson delivered a lengthy speech explaining the Wellbeing Budget on Thursday. He said that ministers had worked closely together on ways to meet targets.
"No other budget has used this level of statistical analysis," he said, "or had ministers working so closely together on shared, innovative programmes." That's a big thing.
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The old way for a budget process to look at mental health, for example, was for the Minister of Health to put in a bid for funds. The new way is for that minister, and the ministers of social development, housing, education, police, children and more, to work together on a plan.
Housing First, for example, the programme that puts rough sleepers in a home and wraps the necessary services around them, is a mental health programme. Suicide counselling in schools is a mental health programme. Police callouts commonly have a mental health dimension.
Planning like this requires more than the ministers getting together. It also demands that their ministries and departments, and other agencies working in the field, also sit around the table.
Making all this happen is not window dressing. It's not just the rhetoric a finance minister uses to make us feel good about the way the money gets spent.
It's the Holy Grail of government. Integrated planning, whole-of-government approaches to problem solving, getting officials out of their silos and sharing the risks and responsibilities: governments try to achieve these things all the time, and there are many examples of partial success.
But as a system – as a way of doing government – it's new. Mostly, the task has defeated those who've tried.
Actually, it may defeat this Government too. But that's why it's so important to take what it's saying about a new approach to budgets seriously: we need to know if it really is doing this stuff.
Robertson identified five priorities, each of them a telling example of the new way of thinking. Take the first:
• Creating opportunities for productive businesses, regions, iwi and others to transition to a sustainable and low-emissions economy.
It's a business priority, but it's not addressed separately from regional issues, iwi issues and climate crisis. It's a way of saying economic goals are inevitably woven into other goals and we need to treat them as such.
Again, it might all turn out to mean very little. But it's the right way to think, and that's the right place to start.
The other priorities were:
• Supporting mental wellbeing for all New Zealanders, with a special focus on under 24-year-olds.
• Reducing child poverty and improving child wellbeing, including addressing family violence.
• Lifting Māori and Pacific incomes, skills and opportunities.
• Supporting a thriving nation in the digital age through innovation, social and economic opportunities.
Robertson provided a clear steer to all this in his speech, as he worked his way through those five priorities. The usual way is to report on the "votes": the money spent by each ministry and department. His way was to report on the spending across all relevant agencies in addressing each priority.
There two great virtues to this approach. The first is that it empowers the health workers, teachers, police officers, counsellors, community workers and everyone else at the frontline. Some already have work in a multi-agency framework, and they will be able to beef up the approach.
Others don't, because they haven't been allowed to, and that will – or should – change.
The other virtue is that it gives practical intent to the larger goals, of integrating economic and environmental planning, growing prosperity for all, building resilient communities.
Robertson is not saying they've cracked it. He's stressed this is a "first go", and the process will take years. Fair enough. But still, even if the framework looks good, how's that content?
Did the Wellbeing Budget deliver enough wellbeing?
Earlier this week I listed 10 "litmus tests". Not the biggest or most important measures, but things that I thought any government serious about wellbeing would find a way to cover off. The result was mixed, at best.
A big new focus on domestic harm got a definite yes. That's great. They haven't yet announced a marketing campaign led by the All Blacks, but I live in hope.
Benefit levels will be tied to wages, and other parts of the report of the Welfare Expert Advisory Group will be taken up too. All good. But there's not going to be a big shift in core benefit levels, and that's a pity.
Teachers are not being offered more money. But the Budget announced several funded initiatives to relieve pressure on them in the classroom and that's good progress. Now it's time for the two sides to find an enlightened way to sit down together and make a plan to achieve what is, after all, or should be, a common goal. Please.
There are some signs of a whole-of-government approach to the climate crisis , most obviously in the revitalisation of rail. But it's a big ongoing project. More please.
I called for a ban on sugary drinks in schools and there's a $10 million allocation ($15m after 2021) for promoting "healthy eating and physical activity" in schools. What nonsense.
Many schools already do insist on water and low-fat milk only, and have reported on marked improvements. But many more don't and that means it's time for the Government to set some rules. For heaven's sake, what possible reason could there be not to do this?.
Nothing was announced about light rail in Auckland. Clearly, the new approach to planning has not yet worked its way through to the NZ Transport Agency.
Look at it this way: last year the NZ Super Fund proposed that it be contracted to build, own and operate light rail in Auckland. Sovereign wealth funds like the NZSF commonly do this overseas and the NZ fund proposes to work with a Canadian partner fund that has extensive, directly relevant experience. The proposal also fits with the Government's desire for the fund to invest more in New Zealand.
But it doesn't fit with NZTA's ideas. To date, the agency has demonstrated a spectacular inability even to know how to analyse the NZSF bid, how to decide what to do about it, how to think differently in any way at all. And the whole project remains stalled.
This Budget is just the beginning? It had better be.
It's too early to know if the Building Code will be revised to incorporate HomeStar ratings , but the Budget missed a perfect opportunity to say it would. Similarly, it's not clear if vaccinations will be rolled out effectively to the hard-to-reach communities that have fallen behind, or whether programmes offering literacy in prisons and free driving lessons will be extended.
The Budget allows for these things, without specifying them. It remains a test of the Government whether they will be realised.
Robertson's focus is on the big picture: reforming the culture and processes of government, delivering an integrated plan for what he called on Thursday "the welfare of our people, the health of our environment and the wellbeing of our communities".
That's fine, and as he says, it can't all be done in a day. But in the heady excitement of all this reform, it remains important he doesn't lose sight of the "little" goals.
That means, for him to do the job properly, and to convince us he is, Robertson needs to keep translating the big ideas into specific policy gains.
Was the Wellbeing Budget the start of something transformational? Perhaps. There's no way to answer that question yet. Holy Grails, remember, are notoriously difficult to find, but does anyone want a government not prepared to try?