Māori score a few wins in restrained budget; cost-of-living help largely absent

By Professor Matt Roskruge

With words like ‘boring’, ‘no frills’ and ‘basic’ thrown about by politicians in the lead-up to this government budget, the signals were clearly set for more bread-and-butter basics than a lolly scramble.

Although the budget certainly wasn’t a lolly scramble, there were a few pieces of candy worth discussing. Maybe a ‘bits and pieces’ budget is more appropriate?

There were a few obvious winners from the funding that was announced. There were many ‘Green’ and climate resilience initiatives that aim to improve our resilience in the face of natural disasters and support our transition to a carbon-zero economy.

Perhaps reflecting the new prime minister’s interests, education did well with solid infrastructure investment and more schools, classrooms and teachers. There were also some positive signs for Māori, with $800 million in Māori priorities funded.

Early childhood education slightly expanded

The flagship announcement was the expansion of early childhood education (ECE) to provide 20 free hours to children between two and three from March 2024. This is aimed to help parents get back into work early and ease the cost of childcare for those already in work.

Although this policy looks attractive, the numbers benefiting from the policy are likely to be limited and the government thinking on not providing 20 hours to all children over one was unclear.

Other big announcements include the removal of the $5 prescription co-payment, free public transport for children under 13 and half-price for those under 25, and, in a win for Te Ao Māori, Te Matatini has received a huge funding boost, with an extra $34m committed over two years.

Focusing first on the prescription costs, reducing the $5 co-payment is probably going to benefit the widest range of people.

Prescription costs have a big impact on people picking up their medications and this announcement should help a lot of people get the medicines they need when funding is tight.

Helpful public transport action

The fee-free public transport for under 13s and half-price up to 25 is a really interesting policy that has the potential to really benefit people in urban areas commuting to work or school. It is also likely to encourage more people into public transport and off the roads, reducing congestion and supporting our climate change action.

For Māori priorities, the Te Matatini announcement is huge. Although the amount of money is modest it should have a massive impact on kapa haka and the benefits, tinana, wairua and tikanga. There is a little bit of detail still to come but it seems the funding will be primarily used to benefit the regional competitions and boost infrastructure. Hopefully, the commitment extends beyond the two years funded here.

Whenua and Whanau Ora

Other priorities targeted include over $200 million for developing and improving Māori whenua and property, $170m over four years for Whanau Ora, a solid investment into Māori medium education and growing the recognition of Matariki. There are also modest boosts to Māori media and Māori tourism announced.

There were some noticeable gaps. While health was the big winner in 2022 there is very little here for the sector other than the prescription changes. Justice also missed out, with only cost adjustments to help the sector keep up with inflation.

Other things discussed like removing GST on fresh kai, increasing Working for Families and addressing what is starting to look like a widespread mental health crisis were conspicuously absent. The lack of targeted spend in mental health was particularly noticeable as services are stretched beyond breaking and it is fundamental to addressing so many of our other social problems that are arising.

Surprisingly restrained

Overall, the sense is the budget delivered few surprises and was very restrained as the government seeks to balance economic pressures and appear as a strong financial manager heading into Election 2023.

The focus on education will keep our new prime minister happy, while the climate and green initiatives as well as Te Matatini wins may well be there to bring Greens and Te Pati Māori on side.

Few will see this as a budget that helps them in a cost of living crisis and some might even agree with the signals from government, not much to see here.

Professor Matthew Roskruge (Te Ātiawa, Ngāti Tama) is associate dean Māori and director, Te Au Rangahau; Rutherford Discovery Fellow and professor, Massey University School of Economics and Finance.