On Newshub Nation Emma Jolliff interviews Professor Marilyn Waring:
Emma Jolliff: Leading economist and former National MP Professor Marilyn Waring first raised her concerns about
inequality and economic measurement 30 years ago. Now, she’s detailed her criticisms of Treasury’s new framework to
measure inter-generational wellbeing in her new book, Still Counting. Professor Waring was New Zealand’s youngest MP in
the 70’s and the only female in Robert Muldoon’s late 70’s caucus. She famously threatened to cross the floor on the
nuclear issue when National had just a one-seat majority, triggering the snap election that ended Muldoon’s reign as
Prime Minister. Professor Waring joins me now in the studio. Thank you very much for joining us.
Marilyn Waring: Morena.
So, 30 years ago, you published Counting for Nothing about the undervaluing of unpaid work. What did you want to achieve
with that book?
In particular, I wanted central government decision makers to understand that the single largest sector of the nation’s
economy, in every country, was left out of GDP figures, and when you use those figures as the central framework for
public policy making and for redistribution of your resources, it’s kind of mad.
How do you describe that sector exactly? The one that’s left out?
Ok, well, it’s the unpaid sector. So pretty much everybody in New Zealand contributes at some time. So, unpaid voluntary
and community work, subsistence food production – you know, on the farm or the back garden, if you happen to have one.
In particular, though, housework and growing care work. But in my ideas, of course, it also includes lactation and
pregnancy, which don’t count anywhere at all.
So it’s been suggested that we’ve never valued unpaid domestic work less than we do now, in fact, and success is still
measured through professional achievements. Would you agree that’s still the case?
It’s measured through market transactions. So a really other important factor is that those market transactions are
supposed to count all underground economic transactions. So that would be the illegal drugs market, internationally, of
course, it’s trafficking people, illegal trafficking armaments. But a truly significant part of GDP is the underground
economy, and it is counted.
But, yet, what’s not underground, and is a positive contributor, is not?
Yes and New Zealand started to go in this direction some time ago. In the very first coalition agreement Winston Peters
signed, there was a commitment to conduct nationwide time-use surveys. We did that twice. They were the most
sophisticated in the world when we did that. But nobody in the bureaucracy or parliament really knew how to use them.
And that’s why they didn’t continue to be used?
They didn’t continue to be used because National became the government, and it doesn’t suit National’s population
support to figure in unpaid work, because that would mean redistributing budgetary resources, and they tend to like to
feather the nests of those who support them.
Let’s come back to time-use surveys in a minute, but first up, the government says it’s putting wellbeing at the centre
of this year’s budget. But in your new book, Still Counting, you’re critical of their approach still. What are your
Well, I want to distinguish between Treasury and the government, because Treasury came up with the framework, which is
not good. First of all, it’s another kind of neo-colonial tool. They take what was developed in Europe, in Paris, and
try to impose it on New Zealand. We actually are really different. You know, we don’t have rivers that flow through
contiguous nation state boundaries. We have tangata whenua here. We have Treaty of Waitangi here. We have very different
sustainable questions in terms of the environment. Why, in 2019, do we have to take some European model and suck it up
here? It doesn’t make any sense.
Is Treasury the right place to manage wellbeing?
Treasury isn’t, and they are Johnny-come-latelys. For example, the Ministry for the Environment has been very
sophisticated in its development of indicators for over 30 years, and they use those indicators and their authentic
characteristics, so, for example, levels of pollution, hectares of standing forest, wildlife degeneration, to put market
asset figures on this is ridiculous! It’s like, what do I bid for a giant weta?
That living standards framework does put a monetary value also on intangibles like loneliness or contact with the
neighbour, you originally argued for a monetary value to be put on unpaid work and the environment. What changed?
Yeah, I did. I argued that because I’d come straight out of parliament and if you wanted to get visibility for the
unpaid work sector or for the environment, the best way to argue was to take on the economy at its own terms so to
attribute market values. The further I got away from the immediacy of needing visibility in parliament, the more I
realised what a pathological approach that was. I would not want, for example, unpaid caring work to be in the same
database as military weapons, which are, by the way, treated like orchards. It’s a terribly pathological system.
So Time-use surveys are your answer, is that right?
Time-use surveys are the key component. Whatever we develop now- Look, what we’ve established is that GDP is not
reliable, especially for international comparators. Whatever’s coming in in its place, we’re going to be laden with that
for the next 50 years. So we’ve got to have a base data characteristic that just will not change over the next 50 years,
and time does that. And we’re going to have all kinds of catastrophes and challenges and they’re going to change
people’s working lives. We may be moving towards things like universal basic income or more towards it. We’ve already
got one of those — it’s called national superannuation, and 750,000 people are on it and time is what will demonstrate
all of these shifts.
Talking about measurement — capital gains tax, do you think that the government should implement one to improve fairness
in the tax system?
Yes, I do.
Why do you say that?
Because I think we want to see redistribution. I don’t like having fields of assets where profit is not taxed, when it
is taxed in loads of other situations. I do think it’s time we just grew up and matured and got over this hurdle. Every
single argument was heard in every single European country that introduced it. They’re tedious now, and I’m interested
in a far more equitable revenue asset base. That should mean being able to make changes in company and personal tax as
And you think that will make a real difference?
I do think it will make a real difference, yes. In fact, I was part of a government in 1982 that introduced a capital
We’re seeing some of the watering-down of the language, though, that the Prime Minister is saying that she’s listening
to small businesses, she’s listening to farmers. Do you think it might end up that it’s just going to be on investment
It may well, but in New Zealand it’s very, very difficult to introduce taxes if they’re not universal. We’re at a very
small population base. You spend so much logistic and technical money trying to sort out who to tax and who not to tax,
that in the end the return is quite small.
So on that issue of tax and many others — the Prime Minister has stressed that she needs to achieve consensus. Does MMP
make it more difficult to make those big, transformational changes?
I think that it makes debate better. It’s always very difficult to say that because when you ask me a question like that
I just go — Israel, Germany because who else do you compare it with? Those are the other MMP situations, and Germany
definitely didn’t have too much trouble.
Do you think she’s going to be able to navigate that coalition path on the capital gains tax?
I hope that population feedback enables the coalition to proceed in that direction.
All right, that’s lovely. Professor Marilyn Waring, thank you very much for joining us.
Thank you, Emma.
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