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What does 'growth' in the 'Asian Century' even mean?

By Charles Berger - posted Friday, 2 November 2012


The Government's White Paper, "Australia in the Asian Century", sets a single overarching goal for our nation: "By 2025, Australia's GDP per person will be in the world's top 10, up from 13th in 2011, requiring a lift in our productivity."

Underneath that goal, the paper goes on to list 25 more specific objectives that represent a recapitulation of current policy plus a few new initiatives. Many of these are sound ideas the Government can rightly take pride in, like a price on carbon, marine protected areas, and the NDIS.

But it's also fair to say that most of the objectives and initiatives are framed in terms of their contribution towards economic growth. That is, education and environmental policies are not seen as independent, intrinsically worthy objectives, but rather as a means to achieving a desired level of GDP growth.

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Suppose we achieve our goal of being among the richest ten countries on the planet, will Australians be better off, on the whole? Not necessarily.

Consider this: of the current ten wealthiest nations, seven, including the USA, Qatar and Singapore, report lower levels of 'experienced wellbeing' (the degree to which people express satisfaction with their own lives) than Australia, according to the New Economics Foundation.

Conversely, three other OECD countries – Canada, Denmark, and Sweden – report higher wellbeing than Australia, despite having lower GDP per capita. At a minimum, this tells us that the relationship between wealth and wellbeing is not straightforward. Increasing our GDP is plainly not the only way of improving the wellbeing of Australians.

There is growing dissatisfaction with mainstream economics and the use of GDP as a proxy for wellbeing. Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz noted that, "if a few bankers get much richer, average income can go up, even as most individuals' incomes are declining. So GDP per capita statistics may not reflect what is happening to most citizens."

Even the Business Council of Australia recognises the need for something better than GDP. BCA chief executive Jennifer Westacott recently said that "true wealth" can not be measured by GDP per capita, but should be based on a much broader notion of "community enrichment, as opposed to getting rich."

In light of these comments, the government's stubborn adherence to GDP as the main national goal starts to look out-of-date and out-of-touch with 21st century thinking.

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Long-term research by bodies in the UK and here have found that mental health and wellbeing equally depend on things like strong personal connections, physical activity, personal reflection and curiosity, learning and generosity.

Personal reflection, building personal relationships, being physically active? Government can't do these things for us, much less mandate them, but it can create the conditions that allow us to pursue these life-enhancing activities more easily.

That's not likely to happen if our government is obsessed with maximising its standing in the global GDP league table.

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About the Author

Charles Berger is the Director of Strategic Ideas to the Australian Conservation Foundation.

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