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Australia’s new National Wellbeing Framework

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On 21 July, the Federal Government released its first attempt at a national wellbeing framework to help better track outcomes in our economy and society.

The aim is to provide a better, more comprehensive foundation for understanding the economy and society, to inform government, business and the community sector in improving the wellbeing of all Australians.

As flagged in his 6,000-word essay in The Monthly titled ‘Capitalism after the crises’, Treasurer Jim Chalmers declared the Labor government wants “to change the dynamics of politics, towards a system where Australians and businesses are clear and active participants in shaping a better society”.

Called ‘Measuring What Matters’, the framework consists of a dashboard of 50 indicators, grouped under five overarching themes, which seek to broaden our collective ambition beyond things such as GDP, employment, inflation and wages, recognising a nation’s interests and ambitions are multidimensional.

The five overarching themes are:

  • Healthy: A society in which people feel well and are in good physical and mental health, can access services when they need, and have the information they require to take action to improve their health.
  • Secure: A society where people live peacefully, feel safe, have financial security and access to housing.
  • Sustainable: A society that sustainably uses natural and financial resources, protects and repairs the environment and builds resilience to combat challenges.
  • Cohesive: A society that supports connections with family, friends and the community, values diversity, and promotes belonging and culture.
  • Prosperous: A society that has a dynamic, strong economy, invests in people’s skills and education, and provides broad opportunities for employment and well-paid, secure jobs.

The attempt to reframe the national economic conversation towards wellbeing joins similar attempts from other forward-looking governments overseas. Finland, Iceland, Scotland, Wales, Canada and New Zealand have forged government partnerships (Wellbeing Economy Governments) on the concept, and the United Nations and OECD have supportive research, with the latter publishing analytics in the form of a Better Life Index to compare quality of life around the world.

Chalmers’ efforts, however, are not the first-time wellbeing has been part of our economic framing. Treasury developed a wellbeing framework in the early 2000s. It helped guide budget thinking for years but was dumped under in Tony Abbott’s government, with some questioning the framework’s utility.

In his recent Saturday Paper article ‘The case for a wellbeing budget’, former Federal Liberal Party leader John Hewson argues that ‘obviously there will always be considerable difficulty in measuring some dimensions of wellbeing, but that shouldn’t be a deterrent, as many believe a broken ruler is better than no ruler at all – that richness is added to policy discussions simply by attempting some form of measurement and assessment.’

Likewise, academics from the University of Canberra, John Hawkins and Jacki Schirmer, argue that the framework should be acknowledged as a significant and positive step in the right direction by Australia’s Treasury, in keeping with international best practice.

Just because the previous wellbeing framework didn’t end up as a mainstay of contemporary Treasury analysis doesn’t mean Treasury shouldn’t re-engage with the nexus of wellbeing and the economy.

Accordingly, the ‘Measuring what Matters’ framework is a start, and for that, Chalmers should be applauded.

While not a complete success, and there are issues with the data available to Treasury at the time of drafting, something driven home by the loud cacophony of agitated opposition politicians and certain members of the media, it is a step towards a better understanding of how our lives in Australian society can be improved. This is a good thing.

The wellbeing framework should be considered similar to the ‘feels like’ temperature rating compared to the actual temperature. Quantifying how government spending’s real effect on society is, and will always be, an inexact science, but the more times we try, the closer we will come to finding out.

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