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Quo Vadis Australia

By David Wilson - posted Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Australia is often known as 'the lucky country' and indeed we are in many ways. Our capital cities continually rank among the most liveable cities in the world and we seem to have survived the recent difficult economic times better than most. Indicators of wellbeing such as life expectancy at birth, high educational outcomes, and self-reports of happiness put us right up there amongst the top countries in the world.

Until recently, social progress was measured by economic growth, stability, and opportunity. Such economic factors are important for the social wellbeing of a country and Australia fares well on those indices. But a Country's wellbeing is a lot more complex than that. In commenting on the Gross Domestic Product as a measure of wellbeing Ross Gittins states: "the problem is we have fallen into the habit of regarding GDP as something much more: the nation's bottom line, a measure of the progress our society is making, the supreme indicator of our wellbeing.

"GDP was never intended to fill that role and, as every economist will concede, it is quite inadequate to the task. The very features that make it a good guide to the economy's job-creating potential make it unsuited to measuring our wider wellbeing."


Gittins notes that there are many other mechanisms for measuring social progress including the OECD's 'Better Life Index', the ABS's 'Measuring Australia's Progress', and the Canadian Index of wellbeing. Gittins is writing here in introduction to the Fairfax attempt to present another measure of Australian social wellbeing, the Fairfax/Lateral Economics research known as the National Wellbeing Index.

The National Wellbeing Index tells us that while the Australian social situation is in good health according to some factors (self-reports of happiness; net national income; and human capital, including education) there is cause for concern when measured by other factors. A sense of wellbeing has been assisted by improvements in education and a rise in net national income, but it has been attacked by a steady decline in health (especially obesity and mental health problems), inequality, and job satisfaction.

Obesity has been found to have a major impact on one's sense of wellbeing. Dr Boyd Swinburn of Deakin University in Melbourne stated that research has found obesity has an effect on the quality of life similar to a major physical disability such as blindness or deafness. ''Quality of life includes mental and physical health, social wellbeing and personal self-esteem. Obesity affects all of those,'' he said. It is estimated that obesity affects almost 25% of the population and is a huge drain on the Nation's wellbeing.

Mental health problems continue to be on the rise in Australia. It is estimated that around 20% of our population are affected by mental illness at any given time and that metal illness has effected over 45% of the population at some time. It becomes even more disturbing when it is recognized that mental illness is grossly under-reported and undiagnosed.

According to the Wellbeing Index, along with other measures, Australia is doing pretty well, especially when compared with many, if not most, other countries. But there are causes for concern, indicators that all is not well and that the 'wellbeing' is a façade that is not very deep in places. It doesn't take too much digging and the underlying social problems appear and at times for some people appear overwhelming. There are many who tell us that we are sick, our social environment is broken, and that there is a call for all of us to be involved in its repair. This is especially so when it comes to the social environment for our children and young people.

Richard Eckersley, Founding Director of Australia21 Ltd, has written and spoken a great deal about this problem. In a talk at the ACL 2011 National Conference in Canberra he told the story of how, after a trip away overseas, upon return he was able to see Australia through different eyes. He saw a culture that was exploitative and oppressive, harsh and oppressed, and suffering from spiritual poverty. Wellbeing is much more than a number of boxes that can be ticked. He said that human wellbeing was to be found across four different spectrums. The Material (food, water, air, clothing, shelter), Social (family, friends. Community), Cultural (reasons to live), and Spiritual (defined by him as connectedness to the world). He said that the things that matter most are at risk to the things that matter least. One example of that was the change in motivation to undertake higher education. Whereas In the 1970's the primary motivation was reportedly to develop a meaningful philosophy of life, today it is to become financially well off.


Eckersley's thesis is that the official story given to us regarding youth and wellbeing needs to be challenged. The Government and certain sections of the Media tell us that our young people are the healthiest generation ever and back this up with measurements of dropping mortality rates and of self-reports of happiness by young people. The new story is not as rosy. Amongst our children and youth, mental health problems are on the rise, child and youth obesity is increasing, and alongside self-reports of happiness are self-reports of being overwhelmed, exhausted, depressed, anxious, and angry. He concludes that our young people may be 'feeling happy' but that they are not experiencing wellbeing.

What's causing this? Eckersley states that there are a multiplicity of factors associated with family issues, mass and social media, education and work, and religion. He states that materialism and individualism are risk factors in our society that need to be closely watched.

Barbara Biggins, the Honorary CEO of Australian Council on Children and the Media, has asked the question through 'On Line Opinion', "Has Australia been good to its kids?" In it she quotes from Richard Eckersley, speaking at the second Australian Conference on Children and the Media: "The orthodox view is that young people have never been healthier; mortality rates continue to fall, and most report that they are healthy, happy and satisfied with their lives. This perspective tends to run counter to claims of media harm. However, a wider analysis of data on young people's health suggests it is declining, especially through increased rates of mental illness and obesity. The media are implicated in these trends in multiple and complex ways"

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A fuller version of this article can be read at Thoughout the year the Sophia Think Tank will be delivering 'Project Reports' in public meetings and ongoing progress can be found on the Sophia Think Tank website. You are invited to contribute to the discussion along the way.

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About the Author

Dr David Wilson is the Senior Consultant with Bible Society Australia’s Sophia Think Tank. He is a past Melbourne City Councillor and has lectured in Social Sciences at a tertiary level for over 30 years.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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