Talk is cheap, the saying goes, but decades of neoliberalism and failed trickle-down economics means Australia needs to begin some new and more meaningful conversations about the kind of country we want to be.
With his inaugural budget, Treasurer Jim Chalmers began a national conversation on the wellbeing of our country – as distinct from the wellbeing of our economy alone.
Tens of thousands of words will be written about the merits or otherwise of the October budget measures, but let’s focus on one important new element introduced in this budget: the creation of a new ‘wellbeing framework’.
Before he was Treasurer, Chalmers delivered his “measuring what matters” speech in 2020 at an Australia Institute event in Brisbane, quoting US presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy’s famous speech to the University of Kansas from 1968. On indulgence, Kennedy’s words may provide insight into the values driving Chalmers’ wellbeing framework: “GDP counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage … GDP does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
While the budget papers are notoriously full of numbers, this year’s also contain an interesting essay entitled “measuring what matters”, which outlines the case for measuring a broader range of indicators and options for how to do so. As Treasury puts it: “Traditional macroeconomic indicators provide important insights, but not a complete or holistic view of the community’s wellbeing. A broader range of social and environmental factors need to be considered to broaden the conversation about quality of life.”
Treasury is in good company. Even the creator of GDP, Simon Kuznets, warned policy-makers about the limitations of GDP, saying: “The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income.”
For decades Australians have been told we need to drill for more gas, dig up more coal, cut down more trees and give tax cuts to high-income earners on the basis to do so will increase GDP. But here we are in 2022 and both the Treasurer and Treasury are now admitting GDP is not the be all and end all. The potential consequences of this shift should not be understated. Take the stage 3 tax cuts as a clear example.
When Scott Morrison first proposed the largest income tax cuts in history, he argued they would boost GDP. But Morrison never argued that, of all the ways to spend one-quarter of $1 trillion, his tax cuts were a good way – let alone the best way – to boost the quality of life of Australians. While it is likely spending $118 billion to give people earning $180,000 up to an extra $9000 in tax cuts every year will improve the quality of some lives in Australia, it is almost certain funding free childcare or boosting the pay of aged care workers would do far more for the wellbeing of the country as a whole.
And then there’s the enormous profits foreign gas companies are making selling Australian oil at record prices overseas thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Under current tax arrangements, the gas companies hang on to virtually all of the windfall gains, which is obviously a fantastic outcome for their largely foreign shareholders. But if Australia were to take its new wellbeing framework seriously, then surely a windfall profits tax, such as that supported by the new UK Prime Minister, and a big increase in spending on health and education here in Australia would drive a big increase in the wellbeing of Australians. Recent calls from former ACCC commissioner Rod Sims for price and export caps on our gas are also gaining momentum as families and business struggle to pay for our own energy.
When Chalmers first announced his desire to develop a wellbeing framework to guide Australia’s budget and policy processes, he was mocked by the then-treasurer Josh Frydenberg. Frydenberg said the idea of considering a wider range of indicators than GDP was tantamount to joining a hippy commune (I won’t repeat the offensive words he used in the chamber, for which Frydenberg was later forced to apologised to the Hindu community). But in reality, Frydenberg’s concerns with wellbeing budgets were not that it was a waste of time, but that it would be a powerful tool for those seeking to push policies to improve the lives of millions of Australians.
The wellbeing chapter in the budget gives little away in terms of how the indicators will be developed and in turn how they will be used in setting the priorities of the next three Labor budgets. It does compare Australia against the OECD average on a range of indicators on everything from life expectancy at birth to trust in government. Unsurprisingly, Australia is at or better than the OECD average on household income and wealth – worse than average but improving on the gender wage gap – and we are worse than average and declining on labour underutilisation, threatened species and household debt.
The Treasurer indicated he is willing to have an big, overdue conversation about tax reform, but he has started an even bigger national conversation about what constitutes quality of life in Australia and what kind of country we want to be. Ultimately, those are democratic questions, but if Australia puts its focus on the wellbeing of its citizens, the answers will shape future budgets in ways that will make us not just richer, but also healthier, smarter and happier.
After years of Morrison, the pandemic and impending climate crisis, Australia may well be ready for a conversation about hope and vision. When Kennedy concluded his remarks in Kansas, he quoted playwright George Berbard Shaw: “Some people see things as they are and ask, ‘Why’? I dream things that never were and ask, ‘Why not’?”
Ebony Bennett is deputy director of leading public policy think-tank the Australia Institute. Twitter: @ebony_bennett.