Wellbeing a cure for inequality

  • Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern
Prime Minister

Kia ora koutou katoa

I was born in the 1980s, the decade of big hair, big shoulders and big reforms.

A decade where New Zealand went through a period of rapid privatisation and economic liberalisation.

While many have argued aspects of these reforms were needed to open our economy to the world, the pace of change came with a high price.

Jobs were lost, manufacturing moved off shore, regulations were removed, and the gap between rich and poor quickly expanded.

Then came the 1990s. New Zealand introduced further reforms that brought “user pay” to the fore and welfare cuts to the most vulnerable.

I was young when this was happening, but I still remember it.

I was the daughter of a policeman in a town of 3,000 people. I only had to look around me to see the people being left behind.

If it’s possible to begin building your social conscience when you are a small child, then that is what happened to me.

I never viewed the world through the lens of politics then, and in many ways still don’t. Instead I try to view it through the lens of children, people and the most basic concept of fairness.

When I eventually signed up to a political party when I was 17, I wasn’t looking for a career.

I wanted, perhaps naively, to change the world. I was promptly handed 300 leaflets and told to start changing said world one mailbox at a time.

The world has changed immeasurably since then. We are both more connected yet more partisan and tribal than ever.

Inequality has progressed almost as rapidly as development.

But thankfully some values endure.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, we have always tried to look out for each other, and do right by one another.

Our track record of striving for equality, and our values of compassion and fairness are sources of national pride.

But that hasn’t always translated into the progress and gains we need.

New Zealand context for Sustainable Development Goals

As a set of rules for a country to live by, you would struggle to do better than the SDGs.

Any serious politician would be hard pressed to argue with goals like halving poverty, providing decent work, quality education, clean water, and peace and justice for all.

And yet here we are. Still struggling.

Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that it’s not the aspiration that is the problem but the domestic political environments in which we are trying to embed them.

Let me explain what I mean by that.

As in many countries, our success in New Zealand has traditionally been measured in economic terms. By these, New Zealand has been relatively successful, with rates of growth that international commentators have remarked upon and commended.

However, the deficiency of such measures has become clear.

The reforms of the 80s and 90s that I referenced just before have left enduring scars on our society.

While many people in New Zealand enjoy an enviable quality of life, our social statistics tell another story for all too many.

Unacceptable rates of child poverty, a growing homelessness problem, heart-breaking rates of suicide and distressingly high family violence.

These problems are an affront to our national values, yet they are the lived experience for too many people in our country.

Economic growth accompanied by worsening social outcomes is not success. It is a failure.

Turning things around requires changing both the way we think and the way we act.

So to tackle these issues in New Zealand, my Government is doing something not many other countries have tried.

We have incorporated the principles of the 2030 Agenda into our domestic policy-making in a way that we hope will drive system-level actions.

This is not just a new scorecard. It is about fundamentally changing how we make decisions and allocate resources.

Domestic action

For instance when deciding where to spend public money and manage our national assets we’ve decided, it is no longer enough to ask: “What will best drive economic growth?”

Now the question that we as politicians are asking is: “What will do the most to improve the lives of New Zealanders – both now and in the future?”

To help answer that question our New Zealand Treasury has been developing a Living Standards Framework that measures well-being, risk and resilience across economic, social and environmental domains. It puts sustainable intergenerational wellbeing at the heart of decision making.

This year we delivered our first Well-being Budget in May.

It took an evidence-based approach and focused investments in areas like child poverty reduction, helping homeless people off the streets and into supported living, sexual and family violence services and delivering on the aspirations of Māori, our indigenous people.

The centrepiece of the Wellbeing Budget was the largest ever investment in mental health services New Zealand has ever seen, including the development of a new frontline service where people can get support for mental health needs at their doctor in the same way they would for a physical ailment.

We’re investing in mental health because ignoring it is a stain our society and a drain on our economy. Our investment will help people lead more fulfilling lives and increase productivity.

That is what wellbeing really looks like.

It’s a values driven approach to economic success.

But it’s not just through new policies and programmes where we can embed principles of wellbeing.

For instance trade is fundamental to New Zealand’s economic prosperity.

We are bringing inclusive and sustainability principles to our trade agenda, including by pursuing environmental outcomes in our trade agreements, such as an end to subsidies that encourage illegal fishing.

And we strongly advocate for respecting and advancing global rules in the WTO to ensure trade is conducted fairly, rather than on the basis of power, which risks leaving behind both small and developing countries alike.

Global need

Globally, there has been impressive progress in some SDG areas, such as reductions in extreme poverty and infant mortality, along with respectable progress in discrete areas such as increased access to electricity.

I know we all applaud these advances, and the effort taken to achieve them.

But in many areas progress has stalled. Despite global economic growth, the distribution of benefits remains uneven. There has been little change in income equality.

And in some areas we are going backwards with rising global hunger, rising global greenhouse gas emissions, and alarming pressure on natural resources and the environment.

I believe that the change in approach that we have adopted in New Zealand is needed at a global scale.

It is about acceleration but also transformation – how to improve people’s well-being and achieve a productive economy at the same time, in ways that enhance rather than diminish our environment, and which leaves no one behind.

Internationally,  we’ve had to strengthen the enablers of sustainable development, and we take a values-driven approach. This means prioritising things like human rights, effective governance and democracy, gender equality, women’s empowerment and the sound stewardship of the environment.

We also look for practical ways to get us closer to our shared goals.

For instance our work, alongside others, to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies and other environmentally harmful subsidies is another example. There is no sense in subsidising the climate change we seek to avert.

But ultimately we need more collaboration, more examples of the international community prioritising our collective and global wellbeing over domestic self-interest.  


We will never pretend we have all the answers, and there is no guarantee that our approach will succeed.

But new thinking is required.

We are lucky in that we have resources enough to support people in need.

But we have the pragmatism and empathy required too.

And I hope that we can share what we are doing, and learn from others.

So perhaps the urge to change the world that led me to sign up and drop leaflets in 300 mailboxes over 20 years ago wasn’t so naïve after all.

There is strength in collective action and shared responsibility.

We just need a bit more of it.

No reira, tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.