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At the start of the Christmas rush I joined a panel discussion at the University of Auckland on wellbeing, with a famous visiting economist, Richard Easterlin, and some politicians.

I was a little nervous, because the last panel I joined at the university was during the 2017 election campaign.  On that occasion only around 2 out of an audience of 200 said they were planning to vote National, somewhat bruising my self-esteem.  Fortunately, it wasn’t a representative sample.

Easterlin has studied the topic of happiness and public policy for decades and has concluded that the concerns that are foremost in people’s minds when reporting their levels of happiness are the same the world over: jobs, living conditions, family life and health.

No surprises there.

The debate was a bit circular because of the false implication that some people think that the only thing that matters is GDP growth, while other more caring souls think about a broader concept of wellbeing.

No one argues or has ever argued that the only thing that matters is GDP growth.

There hasn’t been a single budget in New Zealand’s history that hasn’t focused on improving the wellbeing of New Zealanders.  There has been plenty of debate and differences of opinion of how to achieve progress, but we’ve always taken a broad view.

That’s why we’ve locked a third of the land mass of New Zealand away in the conservation estate, because we care about our environment.

That’s why we’ve consistently redistributed huge sums through the tax and transfer systems to care for those in need, to provide economic security for all and to maintain our social cohesion.

National has consistently emphasised economic growth simply because we want people to be better off.  The economy is about people.  It’s about you, me, our families, our communities.

A strong economy improves our chances of finding satisfying and rewarding work – so that we can look after ourselves and our families. 

Work itself, in its countless varieties, presents us with the opportunity to make a contribution to our world and the people in it.

A strong economy also enables our nation to provide world class healthcare when we need it, the reassurance of superannuation when we’re old, and a helping hand when it’s required.

At the same time, of course, we recognise that money isn’t everything.

Kiwis want to preserve and enhance what is special about this country – the quality of our environment, our social cohesion, our relatively high trust, low corruption traditions, our commitment to the rule of law, freedom and tolerance of different views, our sense of security.

So we should, and we do, put a lot of effort to ensuring that growth does not come at the expense of our core equities – our natural capital and social capital. 

That requires some pragmatism and common sense.  Our response to climate change is a case in point.  Most Kiwis expect that we, as a country that seeks a premium for its exports based on a clean green image, will play our part in a global effort to reduce our carbon emissions.  So National supported the Government’s Zero Carbon bill.

Equally, most Kiwis expect that we take seriously the impact our decisions have on our jobs, our living standards and our way of life, that we take note of what our trading partners are doing so that our actions don’t simply export emissions somewhere else, that we emphasise practical things that can be done.

If you’re serious about improving the wellbeing of New Zealander you have to care about the environment and social cohesion, and you also have to care about job and wealth creation.  There are often tensions between these things; a little pragmatism and common sense can take us a long way.

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