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The Helen Clark Foundation's Kathy Errington on the Budget, bureaucracy & IT, paid & unpaid care, freedom from violence, the Budget & women dominated professions, plus time use surveys

The Helen Clark Foundation's Kathy Errington on the Budget, bureaucracy & IT, paid & unpaid care, freedom from violence, the Budget & women dominated professions, plus time use surveys

This week’s Top 5 comes from Kathy Errington, executive director of public policy think tank The Helen Clark Foundation.

As always, we welcome your additions in the comments below or via email to

And if you're interested in contributing the occasional Top 5 yourself, contact

Much of the substance of Thursday's Budget has been overshadowed by the furore surrounding the leak of some parts to the National Party. While writing this column the story changed from ‘Treasury may have been hacked by Russia’ to ‘someone put words into a search bar’. Not exactly Watergate.

But it does make me reflect as a former civil servant on the perils of hierarchy. The civil service remains a pretty hierarchical place to work in my experience. There are a lot of bright young civil servants expected to sit silently in meetings (a bunch of these folk are now interested in writing things for the Helen Clark Foundation - please hit me up if this is you!)

There is no area where this disparity is more pronounced than IT literacy - junior staff as a rule almost always are more comfortable with the topic than older, senior staff. You didn’t need to have much technical expertise to find the Treasury Secretary’s comments on morning report about ‘rooms and bolts’ nonsensical, and massively risky for a generally cautious civil servant to be saying to media. There must be people at Treasury who knew he was talking nonsense, the question is were they ignored or simply unable to make their point at a senior enough level?

It's like the junior engineer who tried to stop the launch of the Challenger but his manager didn’t believe him. After that NASA moved to make sure anyone no matter what level could raise emergency safety concerns anonymously. We need a civil service equivalent for when the CEO’s talking points in a crisis make no sense.

Turning to the substance of the Budget, I thought I’d offer some comment on the potential of a wellbeing approach to advance the interests of women.

Ten years ago, I did a masters in ‘political economy’ because feminist economics wasn’t a discipline catered to in the mainstream faculty, notwithstanding that a New Zealander essentially invented the field. ‘Only economists could look at a room where a woman is giving birth and describe everyone in the room as working except for her’ remains my favourite joke about mainstream economists.

What would be different if we thought of the economy as the production of society by means of people, rather than the production of commodities by means of commodities? There is clear potential for progressing women’s interests in light of the decision by the government – at least rhetorically - to move towards a system of accounting less focussed on GDP and more on a complex set of indicators that better reflect if people’s lives are improving, irrespective of whether this leads to an increase in conventionally defined productivity.

First question – how does the Budget impact on the distribution of care, both paid and unpaid?

One sentiment that I increasingly think unites left and right is a concern that people care about each other less than they used to.

I define caring as work which is trying to help people meet their needs, things like the work of caring for children, caring for the elderly or caring for sick people. If it is costly to be caring, people can be expected to engage in it less over time.

Restrictions on women’s freedom served to provide a large supply of carers in the past – but as these restrictions happily and inevitably give way, there are many consequences for those who still need care. While I applaud the empowerment of women, if we don't establish thoughtful rules defining men and women’s collective responsibilities for care giving, economic competition may drive altruism and families out of business. Having lived most recently in Japan, with its ultra low birthrate, a whole language has arisen to describe the social consequences of such trends.

Significant in this respect I believe are the increased budget commitments made towards caring for those with mental illnesses. The $455 million over five years for a new frontline service should allow for more people to be treated sooner.

A lack of intervention for people with moderate illness results not only in terrifying emergencies for many families, but often many lost days of paid work - and job loss - for those caring for them. Yet taking a strictly economic ‘social investment’ lens would not necessarily show a dollar return on preventative public health interventions - ultimately they prolong life, and therefore increase the likelihood that individuals will utilise health care and pensions in old age (the latter of course is by far the largest area of social welfare spending). The main benefit goes to the families involved, and a wellbeing approach will go some way towards recording this. It will lower the cost to families for being caring to their family members during times of illness.

Secondly – how does the budget help facilitate freedom from violence?

New Zealand has largely made its laws equal when it relates to women in the market (women are now allowed to work at night, for example). But we have struggled to facilitate women’s lives to be free from violence. Together with the scars of New Zealand’s colonial legacy, the affects from family violence ricochet through generations, and are one driver to New Zealand’s appalling incarceration rates. Young people who grow up in homes with family violence make up almost 80% of youth offenders.

The budget announcement that the government will spend $320 million on a programme to reduce family and sexual offending is a significant step in the right direction. Change will need sustained work.

Thirdly – what is in there for women dominated professions, such as midwifery, nursing and teaching?

Not much. For now, perhaps due to the self-imposed and arbitrary budget responsibility rules, there isn’t much sign of meaningful pay increases for caring professions. The Ministry of Health has previously apologised in 2018 for failing to deliver on promises to midwives. And for now the government is sticking to its lowball offer for teachers. Watch this space for more strikes.

Fourthly, does the Budget commit to resuming time use surveys?

Time use surveys are a key way to show how much unpaid work is undertaken in society, the majority of which is done by women. As far as I could tell from the statistics vote, New Zealand does not plan to resume them. But I could be wrong.

Finally, while not related to the Budget, I’d like to introduce our organisation to those of you who may not have heard of us. The Helen Clark Foundation is an independent public policy think tank based at the Auckland University of Technology. You can see our work here.

We welcome your comments below. If you are not already registered, please register to comment.

Remember we welcome robust, respectful and insightful debate. We don't welcome abusive or defamatory comments and will de-register those repeatedly making such comments. Our current comment policy is here.


If we don't establish a steady-state economy near-term, all the social advances gained thus far will gang aft agley

That involves abandoning GDP as a holy-grail measure, and Robertson correctly channelled Robert Kennedy:

But a lot of it still fitted within the 'economics' framework, and the 'growth projections' are little better than tea-leaf readings. At this stage in global proceedings, perhaps 5 billion overshot
with a never-bigger collection of infrastructure heading in the direction of entropy and a never worse, never less collection of available resources, we indeed need a new measure and a new way of existing. Here is one of the more thoughtful:

But we probably need something like Transition Towns crossed with permaculture, to address life beyond the bottleneck. Whether it's financial collapse or war over what's left, the bottleneck is coming
and we need a plan, and enough who understand the plan. By default, it won't be most of the current 'leadership', although I'd back Ardern to morph when needed.

Steady state is not quite good enough. If the world was carbon neutral tomorrow the backlog of 200 years of fossil fuel burning would remain in our atmosphere for millenia. The oceans would keep warming and the ice melting and with possible feed back issues such as permafrost melting, less sunlight reflected off ice and the Amazon and Congo turning into massive peat fires it is quite possible for much of the world to be uninhabitable. So 'carbon zero' is a step in the right direction but we would still need some new technology to save us (giant mirrors in space is my favourite). Of course the science is still rather iffy - maybe the oceans will just suck up that CO2 and the temperature will only rise a smidgen. Who knows?

And by doing space borne industry and solar energy - the whole miserable argument for steady state economics falls on its face. For every 2500 km up from the surface from the surface the amount of accessible solar energy doubles.

Errington - despite having been sent information on EROEI - is hawking 'green hydrogen' via any outlet she can.

Who is behind this? Parker mentioned it at the LP Conf last year too. Hydrogen is at best an energy-sapping battery, with storage issues. We've known we'd be better with pumped-storage, for more than a decade. Why do these people get exposure-time? It's just a waste of the time remaining.

Family violence is endemic globally sadly. In our part of the planet, I wonder how much the trash television serves up nightly is feeding into it. The relationship between television & murder is hourly (starting at 6.00 pm) & I see this week they're putting together a 'panel of experts' to solve cold case murders for goodness sake.
The foul language, violence, gratuitous sex & general evil available to anyone with a television set to watch is overwhelming & no one will convince me it hasn't a role to play in our awful household violence statistics.

Have you heard a lot of the music coming out lately? especially the RAP (crap) coming from the US. It is chock full of violence and swearing at almost every level. Should be banned.

And you notice (I might be stereotyping a bit here) how there is a tendency for those of a lower socio-economic status to walk around subconsciously mirroring the mannerisms of these Crappers from the U.S.

"Chur bro I grew up on the mean streets of Rotorua, F*** da police, Westside crips because I like the colour blue and it's easier for me to contort my fingers into the shape of the letter C than a W".

SuperFreakonomics chapter 3 shows links between crime figures and access to TV based on data from cities in the USA which had or hadn't TV when no new stations were built for two years in the fifties. At least when we had restricted number of channels the entire audience would get the same mix of 'little house on the prairie' and murder mystery. Now with the internet you can spend 24 hours a day indulging your taste for Sport, Khardasians or vicious sex crime dramas.

#2 The phrase " the scars of New Zealand’s colonial legacy " implies something originally flawless that was ripped and torn. I'm no expert on Maori history but I do know PNG where most of the people live in the Highlands and their existence was unknown until about 1950. No colonists settled their fertile lands and the lazy Aussie colonial govt didn't do much about education until just before independence in 1975. So what can be learned about family violence from numerous non-colonial illiterate societies: (a) it varied greatly from tribe to tribe (b) it was extensive [a survey recorded 97% of Simbu women having been hit by their husbands] and it is slowly getting better because of (a) Christianity (b) police force (c) rule of law. Maybe Maori were different but it sounds like Rousseau's discredited "the noble savage" philosophy.

Pinker's recent books have shown levels of violence consistently going down for over 500 years and across all societies. He attributes it to trade leading to the rule of law and literacy leading to reading novels which teach empathy with others (both by gender and race).

I can't see how a woman or man will ever be empowered if the government does it or provides for it. But I guess left wingers need a dependent group otherwise there would be no need for socialists.

“if we don't establish thoughtful rules defining men and women’s collective responsibilities for care giving, economic competition may drive altruism and families out of business.”
- Who is this “we” you speak of. Responsibilities are up to each individual or couple themselves to decide. Where does one get off thinking that we can collectively dictate what everyone does?? Then has the inconsistent logic to purport to care for minorities while missing the ultimate minority. Rediculous

A collective responsibility is created by a politician to engender fear and jealousy within society. To define a problem to which the politician can offer a solution.

Surely without a collective responsibility there is no society.

Why? Individual responsibility would work fine. If everyone tidied up their own backyard the world wouldn’t need saving so to speak.

Good catch there. Although I would say that it is up for the family (not individual) to decide what caregiving arrangement works best for them. I fail to see how precluding that choice through "thoughtful rules"or other incentives could enhance well being.

Good point, I threw “couples” in there to try and achieve that idea. Wellbeing is subjective anyway, it will never be achieved as the goalposts will always be shifting and that’s kind of the point. We will always be in “need” labour or whoever purport to make our lives better (as long as we keep the myth going that the quality of our lives is dependant on how much support we receive from the government).

Apparently the only remedy to social issues is a lump sum in the Budget. Seems to me the lack of empathy is promoted by an over reliance on a government fix.
New Zealand media portray this. Some child is harmed and the camera's are on some poor government agency. What you never see is a camera in the face of some perpetrator. Certainly they never get asked an awkward question.
Dumping a budget lump some those issues above may be counter productive. They prevent folk taking responsibility.

I'm guessing you saw the Solo Mum of 9 on the news complaining that indexing the benefits to wage inflation wasn't enough, that she'd need an extra $100 - $150 a week to be comfortable, because she spends $10 a day on milk. This is the unintended consequences of, as you put it, "Lump Sum Social Welfare".

Yes, let's forget about measuring objective things like incomes and the cost of living, and instead ask questions about our subjective happiness.

Incomes may be low and the cost of living high, but we can't do anything about that. Instead, let's focus on how we can learn to be content with our lot in life. Please.