Coronavirus: Government should use Budget 2020 to also address long-term issues - advocates

Budget 2020 is shaping up to be among the most significant in New Zealand history, with advocates hoping it addresses the long-term issues which existed before the pandemic, as well as COVID-19's immediate impacts.

There is likely no industry, business or Kiwi that COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown hasn't drastically affected. Unemployment is on the up, while every day there are stories of stores closing and operators in dire straits.

The scale of the economic stimulus needed to re-energise the economy is massive and provides an opportunity for new ideas and ways of doing things. While devastated sectors - such as tourism - are promised packages to kickstart their recovery, there are big picture issues to address as well, advocates say.

In her pre-Budget speech on Wednesday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described Budget 2020 as the "first step" in the recovery stage of rebuilding New Zealand. 

She promised investment, not cuts to essential service, and a relentless focus on growth and jobs, but "not growth for growth sakes". She explained that by saying the Government still needs to acknowledge "challenges to our environment [and] to our wellbeing" that we can also use this time to resolve.

That balance between immediate and long-term issues is something Kiwi children's charity Barnados is hoping the Government will get right.

"Significant issues existed affecting children and families' lives prior to COVID-19. The pandemic has had a real impact on deepening those issues, such as family poverty, abuse and neglect," said the charity's general manager for advocacy, Claire Achmad.

"This Budget needs to address those issues, invest to support children and families through those long-term challenges and the immediate recovery from COVID-19."

She told Newshub that outcomes for children and families are "directly reliant on the health and sustainability of the NGO social service sector".

"We need to see that underfunding gap closed and closer partnership between Government and the NGO sector," Achmad said, while also advocating for greater transparency on how governments spend money on children.

Achmad praised some of the initiatives the Government has already implemented over the last three months, including a $25 increase to benefits, a new homelessness action plan, a pre-Budget announcement of nearly $203 million to end domestic and sexual abuse, as well as pay increases to early childhood teachers

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The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) also wants children at the heart of the Budget. Executive officer Georgie Craw says the existing levels of child poverty is already "distressing" and with unemployment rising and a recession around the corner, the number of people entrenched in poverty could jump.

Susan St John, an economics spokesperson for CPAG, says benefit reforms are a must. 

"The aim should be to have benefits high enough that supplementary payments are rarely necessary, and penalties for additional earnings are greatly reduced. The current penal treatment of relationship status in the benefit system must be removed," she said.

"CPAG would like to see all married person rates lifted to the single rate, and all benefits given on an individual basis.

"CPAG urges the government to immediately implement policy that allows all low-income families to have the full Working for Families support. It would deliver at least another $72.50 a week to the very worst-off children in low-income families to help parents keep their children safe and well at an annual cost of around $450m."

In terms of health, the group is calling for free healthcare, including dentistry, prescriptions and specialist hearing and vision care for all people under 18 years old. While in education, the group wants to see greater investment in support systems to help children with mental health needs post-COVID-19.

CPAG says the Government should also place a lesser emphasis on the accommodation supplement Kiwis can receive, and instead work to reduce rents in the rental market. 

"The social changes we have committed to in curbing the spread of COVID-19 in our community is impressive. What else do we value enough to change? What about a world with better income support so all families can retain financial independence for themselves and fully participate in our society," Craw said.

Grant Robertson.
Grant Robertson. Photo credit: Getty.

While the world grapples with COVID-19, climate change continues. 

Russel Norman of Greenpeace says New Zealand should "use this opportunity" to "build back better". Throughout it all, however, he said we should be mindful of future generations who will be forced to deal with the debt. 

Last week, Greenpeace called for a $1 billion investment into regenerative agriculture, with five key projects such as grants for agroforestry, constructing more plant-based food processing facilities and financing the fencing and replanting of streams.

"We can do better than what we have done in the past if we invest in low-carbon, climate-friendly technologies we can actually reduce our carbon emissions," he told Newshub.

"If we invest in regenerative agriculture, we can decrease the impact that agriculture is having on our rivers and other ecosystems."

New Zealand will be going into winter with an eye on keeping the pressure off our health system in case COVID-19 spikes again. That was one of the reasons for the early rollout of the influenza vaccination campaign.

Norman says one of the biggest things the Government could do to assist Kiwis through the chilly months would be to rollout and subsidise insulation. 

"That was one of the programmes that happened after the Global Financial Crisis, but there are still hundreds of thousands of people living in cold, damp houses without adequate insulation. So it would be great to see that subsidised and rolled out across the country with clean heating as well."

Clean energy should also be on the agenda, Norman said, calling for solar panels on people's roofs. 

Coronavirus: Government should use Budget 2020 to also address long-term issues - advocates
Photo credit: Newshub.

The Prime Minister says we are facing the "most challenging economic conditions" since the Great Depression, and as a result, economist Shamubeel Eaqub is expecting "oodles and oodles of spending".

"The Budget is just a one-off, but this is a rolling crisis and the nature of it is changing as each day passes. So, they are going to have to be quite flexible in terms of changing their programmes, giving more money or less money to certain parts of the economy."

National's Finance spokesperson Paul Goldsmith told Newshub that with the Reserve Bank forecasting a "disturbing" 150,000 job losses by September, the Government needs a plan.

"The Government said the Budget will be about jobs, jobs, jobs, but we need a better plan than spend, spend, spend followed by tax, tax, tax. We need a clear growth plan to get us out of this hole."

"It is about trusting New Zealanders, families, small businesses and larger businesses to know how to get back onto their feet again and to support them with good quality infrastructure and to help those most affected get through this difficult time."

Among the initiatives the Government has introduced so far to support Kiwis is a wage subsidy scheme that has paid out nearly $11 billion as well as business tax changes to free up cash. A $100 million redeployment package was also announced earlier this year to find Kiwis work during this difficult period.

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