What did international coverage get right about the 2019 Budget? Not a hell of a lot, writes Alex Braae.
“I read the foreign news to understand my nation.” So said Matt Berninger of band The National, in a line from the song ‘Fashion Coat’.
The government’s 2019 budget – the first ever Wellbeing Budget at that – has been a big deal overseas. Many international media outlets and commentators have run articles that capture the vibe of what the government was going for. But does Berninger’s pithy aphorism hold true when it’s applied to the budget?
Many of the journalists filing for international outlets are actually based in New Zealand, and reporting from the ground here. But the shift in tone – from granular local reporting to foreign correspondent – is still notable, with many articles taking a broad brush approach to the budget and what it means for New Zealand.
Let’s start with the best of the bunch and work our way down. Top of the list is the New York Times, the famed Grey Lady and leading light of coastal American liberalism. In an article by NZ-based journalist Charlotte Graham-McLay, the overall thrust of the budget and its focus on ‘wellbeing’ measures other than GDP was given strong backing. London School of Economics professor Richard Layard was quoted saying the budget was a “game changing event,” as “no other major country has so explicitly adopted well-being as its objective.”
Then there’s the Guardian, which has become one of the biggest news websites in the world and by far the largest liberal outlet. Again, their piece was written by an NZ-based journalist, in this case Eleanor Ainge-Roy. There the major focus was on the major investment in mental health services, with plenty of voices expressing support for the budget, and only a few lines of opposition from the National party. In fairness to Ainge-Roy, she’s no government shill – this week she has also written about the massive teacher strike, the absurd Treasury website bungle, and the stock photo model on the cover of the budget moving to Australia.
On Al-Jazeera, a story attributed to ‘news agencies’ framed the Wellbeing Budget as a move set to “cement Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s reputation for compassionate leadership.” It added that “the New Zealand leader, widely praised for her respectful handling of the March shooting in which 51 Muslims were killed at two mosques, said the budget put people before economic indicators.” The article also gave significant space down page to the views of National’s Amy Adams.
Major international thinkers were also showing support on Twitter. Economist Rutger Bregman, the guy who told the rich people off at Davos, said New Zealand was “a beacon for the world. First major country that realizes the time for GDP is over.” And prominent English journalist Caitlin Moran said it was “an unbelievably thrilling alternate way of doing politics. We know infinite economic growth is impossible, and fucking hell what an exciting idea.”
An American based site called Common Dreams went even further, headlining their story with “Applause for New Zealand ‘Wellbeing Budget’ That Dedicates Billions to Mental Health Care and Ending Child Poverty.” And it included this rather telling comparative paragraph:
“The wellbeing budget represented a stark contrast to the spending priorities of other wealthy countries like the U.K.—where the past decade’s austerity policies prompted a recent rebuke from the U.N.’s human rights expert—and the U.S., where the Trump administration proposed hiking military spending by $34 billion in March while claiming $1.1 trillion in Medicaid cuts were necessary.”
Somehow Common Dreams failed to notice the big boost in defence spending in the Wellbeing Budget.
The New Zealand portrayed in these overseas publications isn’t necessarily one that a lot of New Zealanders will recognise. It’s a New Zealand seemingly depicted entirely through the personage of Jacinda Ardern herself. That’s not intended to be a slight on the PM, it’s just that her day to day job doesn’t actually involve an awful lot of being painted in giant murals, or being feted by leaders of some of the most important countries in the world at major international summits. The press gallery don’t tend to greet the PM with a rousing chorus of Yaas Kween.
International readers who are vaguely interested in New Zealand’s politics probably don’t actually care all that much that most of what was announced yesterday was heavily contested from many different and diverse perspectives. Going by much of that overseas coverage, it appears that what they’re really interested in reading about is an avatar for a better world, one that they wish they lived in. New Zealand, the country so fantastical that some people don’t even believe it really exists, is a beautiful dream for many people in countries like the USA and Britain that are governed by grotesque oafs.
Fortunately, the Daily Mail is always there to restore some balance. Ben Hill, formerly of the NZ Herald, filed a piece introduced with the following paragraph: “Jacinda Ardern’s ‘kooky’ plans to spend $26BILLION on a ‘wellbeing’ Budget will devastate New Zealand and force Kiwis to flee to Australia – and even the mum on the cover has crossed the ditch due to cost of living.” The article is heavily based on comments from some rabid Australian commentators on a talkback radio show.
When that’s the quality of the analysis, it’s probably better to ignore Matt Berninger’s advice entirely, and stick to local news sources.
This article has been edited slightly for clarity since it was first published.