With new budget, New Zealand puts its money where its heart is

June 3, 2019, 3:41 p.m.
Hikers at Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand.
Photo: i viewfinder/Shutterstock

The New Zealand government has taken a bold step where no modern government has gone before, telling its citizens the economy doesn't matter so much — as long as they're happy.

At last week's budget announcement, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern shocked — and maybe even inspired — the world by announcing billions of dollars for programs addressing mental health, suicide and child poverty.

"We said that we would be a government that did things differently, and for this budget we have done just that," Ardern told reporters. "Today we have laid the foundation for not just one well-being budget, but a different approach for government decision-making altogether."

The economy will effectively take a backseat to happiness. Spending on mental health will increase by $1.9 billion NZ ($1.2 billion U.S.) over the next four years. Those funds will ensure thousands more New Zealanders will be able to access mental and addiction services for free. The government also promised to cut the number of children living in poverty — currently estimated at 180,000 — in half over the next 10 years.

Millions more in funding will go towards housing programs for people who need a long-term home — for free with no strings attached.

Along the way, New Zealand will become the first western country to direct the bulk of its budget toward mental health and poverty.

You would think that a country that sees just under 5 million people living alongside blue penguins, kiwi birds, dolphins, fur seals and falcon — not to mention some of the world's most breathtaking natural scenery — would have little trouble finding its mental health footing.

After all, nature has proven such a powerful remedy for what may ail the mind that some doctors even write a prescription for it. But in New Zealand, that drug doesn't seem to be working.

The country has the dubious distinction of being ranked first among all Western countries for teen and young adult suicides.

Something has to give, as Finance Minister Grant Robertson told The Associated Press.

"The old way of doing things has left too many people behind," he said. "New Zealanders want us to measure our success, and invest on their behalf, in line with their values. The values of fairness, the protection of the environment, the strength of our communities."