Strong economy good for wellbeing

It would be a heartless person who didn’t commend the Government for the commitment it showed to New Zealand’s most disadvantaged people in announcing its Wellbeing Budget yesterday.

It would be good to get to the bottom of why this country needs to spend so much on mental health care and why many of our young people don’t seem to have much hope. When you look at the Scandinavian countries that always score so highly on global “happiness” surveys, it seems that at least one factor contributing to a nation’s wellbeing is a strong economy that offers hope of a good, balanced lifestyle. Yesterday’s budget was not one that will transform our economy.

As a trading nation that is moving goods around 24 hours a day, seven days a week, road transport is the lifeblood of our economy. Currently trucks transport around 90 percent of New Zealand’s total freight by weight, with seven percent going by rail and the rest by air and coastal shipping. Your food, clothes, furniture, cars, whiteware and appliances, office products, technology, and pretty much everything else, has travelled via truck at some point to get to you.

So, it is concerning to see so much money being pumped into rail – $1.41 billion allocated to KiwiRail over the next two years in yesterday’s budget – without an equivalent investment in roads. And it was disappointing to hear Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in her Budget speech at Parliament yesterday shout, “If you want to talk about safety on our roads, get freight off it and get it on to rail.” Incidentally, we would like to see the evidence behind this call. Also, how will the big investment in rail take freight off trucks specifically? The truth is that there is a lot of money going into rail that will probably not shift the freight task in any measurable direction away from roading.

This push to revive a rail freight network that has essentially failed in the past and as a consequence, has become run-down, at the expense of the already functioning road freight network, doesn’t feel visionary. If ever, it will be a long time before there is any evidence of more freight being moved by rail and fewer heavy trucks on the road. In the meantime, road conditions will worsen without investment and that will impact road safety and the economy. It all feels fine when we have a strong economy, but we require the Government to be investing now in modes that will carry and build our nation when things slow.

With the budget also pouring more money into forestry, it seems extraordinary that the Government hasn’t considered what happens to all those trees when they are harvested. They go off shore, to boost our export earnings, and they get from the forest via logging trucks – heavy vehicles that need good roads.

Anyone who spent budget night in Wellington’s wild weather trying to get home to the suburbs out of the city, by car and public transport – a two-hour journey for many that would normally be 20-40 minutes – will be aware of how lacking in resilience our infrastructure is. They might have spent some of that time grid-locked on both State Highway 1 and 2 contemplating the value of maybe some budget dollars going to securing our economy and productivity with good, resilient infrastructure.

As politicians were in the Beehive clinking their glasses of pinot noir and congratulating themselves on their citizens’ wellbeing, on the dark, wet, windy streets beyond their windows it felt like the economy was slowing even more and its vitality – our extensive roading network that needs to be resilient in a country plagued by natural disasters – was being ignored. The budget didn’t feel very strategic, or like there was big-picture future planning; more like doling out money to the pet projects of coalition partners.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum


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