This month we spoke to Gareth Hughes who is the Country Lead for WEAll Aotearoa. The Wellbeing Economy Alliance (WEAll) is the leading collaboration of organisations, alliances, movements, and individuals working towards a Wellbeing Economy, delivering human and ecological wellbeing.
Tell us a bit about you and the work that you are doing?
I’ve spent more than 20 years as a changemaker working at places like Greenpeace and I served for a decade in parliament then retired to write a book and get more involved in hands on initiatives. I realised I’d spent my working life focused on the symptoms, and the downstream effects of economic choices, and if we don’t focus on fixing the upstream economic drivers in the system, we are not going to solve the great challenges of our time. The WEAll Aotearoa team is working on just that and I joined 12 months ago as the Country Lead to set it up as the 15th Hub of the global movement. We had been operating in a voluntary capacity for the last four years so the funding from P4NE has been a real game changer for us and means we can now amplify and supercharge our work. We are focused on trying to reshape our economic system in Aotearoa New Zealand so that it delivers for both people and the planet.
If we don’t focus on fixing the upstream economic drivers in the system, we are not going to solve the great challenges of our time.
I think it’s fair to say that New Zealand has been a bit of a global pioneer and exemplar of modelling and trialling new economic approaches. In 2017 we saw a change of government and with Jacinda Ardern as our Prime Minister, we launched the first Wellbeing Budget. This meant that instead of putting a monetary value on everything, the budget also focused on delivering a broader range of wellbeing metrics. For a long time, our civil service has been developing new frameworks, which started out at the OECD, but the Treasury’s Living Standards Framework has been a real game changer for the way that public servants have approached thinking about policy problems and policy solutions. Since then we’ve seen a number of wellbeing budgets issued by the government and we’ve seen our first-ever National Wellbeing Report published last year, which looked at a broad range of measures for how New Zealand was doing against these wellbeing indicators.
It’s important to mention here that in New Zealand, Te Ao Māori frameworks and Indigenous wisdom has been offering a great alternate value set to some of the dominant narratives and conceptions of the economy that New Zealand’s operated in since the 1980s. So the Wellbeing Economy Alliance has been supporting all of this work encouraging the government to go further because our ultimate vision is the transformation of our economy so that it delivers wellbeing by default.
Te Ao Māori frameworks and Indigenous wisdom has been offering a great alternate value set to some of the dominant narratives and conceptions of the economy
Can you share more about the Indigenous Framework?
I think indigenous wisdom is something that all countries can benefit from. In New Zealand we’ve got a treaty which was signed in 1840 and is the constitutional bedrock of our government and society. Through respecting Te Tiriti o Waitangi we can put in place initiatives that centre on the wellbeing of Māori but also all New Zealanders. The Treasury has advanced a framework called He Ara Waiora which incorporates nature and recognises that our relationship with nature is foundational, alongside spirit and culture being vital, and that sense of relationships which is so central to an Indigenous perspective. So that’s work happening within the Government and has been picked up by our Productivity Commission who are recommending that it gets further adopted and further used across all the sectors of New Zealand’s society.
We’ve got a general election coming up in about 3 months time and a lot of ideas are being debated. At WEAll Aotearoa we’ve been working to promote those existing wellbeing approaches and how they can be strengthened, deepened and embedded but we also know there is much more to do and we think that Indigenous values and ideas – closeness to nature, long term thinking, a strong sense of community, putting people before profit – are a key part of what every country needs to shift towards.
What makes this work hard? What are the barriers and challenges to that kind of change happening?
Sometimes I feel like I am trying to change our country’s economy from my kitchen table! That is to say, we are tiny at the moment – a small, relatively new organisation of which I am the only employee, though also supported by a great team of volunteers.
I think at a national level issues like the cost of living and the impact of the pandemic means that a lot of people are finding things really tough and people are sceptical of politicians being able to deliver big ideas because things like homelessness and child poverty haven’t been fixed.
There is great thinking happening globally from Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics through to the emerging degrowth movement, the voice of one of our ambassadors, Jason Hickel, alongside the wonderful example of Wales with the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, the Ecological Economics movement and Circular Design principles – but we need to find ways to connect this all up globally whilst also finding local contexts where communities are demonstrating this work in practice.
We need to find ways to connect this all up globally whilst also finding local contexts where communities are demonstrating this work in practice.
New Zealand was one of the most equal and egalitarian countries in the Global North, however, our reforms of the 1980’s saw the fastest growth of inequality of any developed country over that period. That means we’ve seen a spectacular growth of child poverty, of food insecurity, homelessness, and record polarisation and social pain. These are all intrinsically linked with economic decisions around how wealth was shared or not shared, who benefitted from our economic growth and how our public services are operating.
We’ve recently seen government data showing that our richest 10% are half the effective tax rates than the average teacher or nurse. So we’ve seen massive inequality and we need to make sure that people are earning adequate incomes and that the tax and budget burden is being shared more fairly. New Zealand’s an outlier that we’re one of the only OECD countries with no form of capital gains or wealth taxes which just means that ordinary workers are paying an unfair share to ensure we have an operating and caring society.
This means there is a lot to do in influencing the Government! In advance of the elections we’ve got six big ideas that we’re promoting in an open letter to political leaders for their consideration:
- Listen to and follow Indigenous wisdom.
- Embed and strengthen a wellbeing approach within government that encourages long-term thinking.
- Use tax and budgets to build a meaningful wellbeing economy Aotearoa New Zealand could do more to prevent problems such as poverty and homelessness before they occur.
- Empower citizens and communities New Zealand citizens are disconnected and distant by design from important decisions impacting on their lives, which contributes to declining trust and social cohesion.
- Prosperous businesses in a thriving Aotearoa. The business sector is a core foundation of community health and wellbeing.
- An economy connected to nature.
A big part of the work – towards transformation of our economy – is about a shift in narratives and how the public engages with this. This year we published a report on how to communicate about tax and budgets, and topics related to the economy, to the general public as well as hosting a series of webinars to promote new economic thinking. This is all about amplifying the ideas and engaging with a broader range of people so that both individuals and communities can understand what a new economy would look like in their daily lives.
This is all about…engaging with a broader range of people so that both individuals and communities can understand what a new economy would look like in their daily lives.
I’ve recently travelled around New Zealand in a campervan for a month which we called an Economics Listening Tour. Rather than going around the country just talking to people about these new economic ideas, we went out and convened meetings of representative samples in New Zealand – Māori representatives, workers, business, academia, faith and disability networks – asking them what they thought about the economy and what their economic aspirations were. It has been amazing to hear ordinary voices because often we only ever hear from bank economists in the media or on the business pages of the newspaper. It was great to share what happened on the tour with Radio NZ (Listen here) and in an article for Stuff.
All of this is all culminating in our inaugural conference, which will be held in Auckland on the 31st of August this year. We’re tremendously excited because we’ll bring 250 leading thinkers together and we’ll be putting a spotlight on Indigenous wisdom, on the range of new economic thinking that’s happening globally, and highlighting positive examples of people doing the economy differently in New Zealand – food programmes, maker spaces, tool libraries, community initiatives etc. We hope that in bringing people together we can strengthen this movement and continue to grow our number of supporters, our reach and our influence.
To finish, we love the sound of the Economics Listening Tour, what are three things you learnt from it?
The first thing is that people are surprised when you ask them for their opinion on the economy. A lot of people feel that it’s not something for them to comment on or they don’t have the skills to engage, which I think is an absolute tragedy because economics is not a science. As Ha-Joon Chang says, really economics is just politics and we need to empower everyday citizens to engage. That’s why the movement for citizens assemblies and other forms of participation and deliberation are so crucial.
I think the second thing is that the debate really is changing. Everyone acknowledges that we are in a poly-crisis. Maybe 10-20 years ago there would have been a lot more people defending business as usual, however, no one is doing that in any sector. Everyone that I came across is asking the question – what’s next and where do we go from here?
The debate is really changing…Everyone that I came across is asking the question – what’s next and where do we go from here?
And I think the third thing is that when you ask people how to describe the current economy, they talk about how it’s individualistic, competitive, extractive, damaging, not caring but that’s exactly what they don’t want. So collectively we see outcomes that none of us want individually and when you ask people what they want, they want a caring economy, they want their neighbours doing well, they want a long term approach, they want nature restored.
When you ask people what they want, they want a caring economy, they want their neighbours doing well, they want a long term approach, they want nature restored.
That means there’s a strong mandate for politicians and all decision-makers, as well as the business community to be ensuring that we’re actually delivering on what we collectively say we want.Back to Stories