Happiness Relocated: The revelation that the model, and her young daughter, whose smiling faces adorned the cover of Grant Robertson's "Wellbeing Budget" had departed New Zealand in search of a better life on Australia's Gold Coast, provided a powerful symbol of the disconnect between the experts' top-down approach to wellbeing, and the practical judgements of real people, on the ground, about their wellbeing - or the lack of it.
“THE WELLBEING BUDGET.” What a fantastic public relations confection this year’s budgeting exercise has turned out to be! Who could possibly raise a reasonable objection to the idea of gearing all the Government’s revenue-gathering and spending efforts towards securing the “wellbeing” of the New Zealand people?
Not Simon Bridges, that’s for sure. The Opposition’s case seems to rest on the assertion that they thought of it first. That “wellbeing” is just another name for former National Party leader Bill English’s programme of “social investment”.
And that’s a worry. Because the thinking behind both the “Wellbeing Budget”, as well as English’s “social investment” programme, runs counter to the most fundamental tenet of parliamentary democracy. Namely: that before money can be appropriated from the people in the form of taxes, their consent must first be obtained; and that such consent must be renewed annually, on the people’s behalf, by their freely elected representatives.
The entire Westminster System rests on the notion that there can be “no taxation without representation”. For breaching this fundamental principle, King Charles I lost his head, and King George III lost his 13 American colonies.
These grim precedents notwithstanding, the “wellbeing” principle enunciated by the Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, in yesterday’s Budget Speech, involves shifting the responsibility for signing-off on how the people’s money is to be spent from their elected representatives to their supposed servants in the Public Service.
Apparently, the whole notion of Members of Parliament determining and overseeing how the people’s taxes are spent has become woefully outdated. How much more efficient to simply vote money to a collection of government agencies and allow them to spend it as they see fit over the next four or five years. Annual appropriations, voted by the House of Representatives, is such an archaic way of operating what has become a fearsomely complex state machine. Much better to leave matters to the “experts”. They will keep their Minister informed, and s/he will tell Parliament when it’s time to wield its rubber stamp.
“Experts.” Aye, there’s the rub. For at least a century, the notion of government by experts (also known as “technocracy”) has enjoyed a solid following among … well … experts. Indeed, in the years following the First World War, a whole new approach to “manufacturing” the consent of the masses was developed by an arcane combination of journalists, psychologists and political scientists. It was the most accomplished of these manipulators, Edward Bernays, who refined the process into what we today recognise as the profession of “public relations”.
From a democratic perspective, the only true experts are the people themselves. That MPs need their votes to enter the House of Representatives means that, in theory at least, they enter that august institution with a pretty good idea of what a substantial number of voters regard as important and unimportant. It is on the basis of this knowledge that they appropriate money and frame legislation. To further inform and refine their thinking, MPs invite the people to make submissions to parliamentary select committees. At this point in the process, the contributions of experts are welcomed.
Political parties, once again in theory, are supposed to amplify the expression of the people’s needs and wants by organising them into a coherent package of proposed reforms. This is referred to as the party’s “manifesto”. It represents a kind of political contract with the electors, and the parliamentary representatives of the party, or parties, commanding a majority in the House of Representatives are expected to honour their manifesto’s “mandate” by conscientiously fulfilling its promises. The funding of these promises, via the elected government’s annual Budget, is the people’s most effective guarantee for securing their wellbeing democratically.
The only legitimate role for public servants in this process is to advise the elected Government on how best to implement its manifesto promises. The Public Service is not there to substitute its own judgement for that of the people’s – as expressed through the electoral process. Nor is it the business of elected politicians to ask bureaucrats to do the job they were chosen to do. All the “working groups” and “expert committees” in the world cannot relieve the people’s representatives of their sacred duty to – represent the people.
If the wellbeing of the people can only be secured by “experts”, then democracy is a lie.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 31 May 2019.