John Hewson
The case for a wellbeing budget

When I became leader of the opposition there was endless advice by some of the “old guard” about how I should operate. The basic principle was that you should see no good in the other side, not in the people nor in their policy prescriptions – they are your opposition, your enemy. They should be attacked at each and every opportunity. This sat particularly uneasily with me.

Sure, I could see that if we disagreed fundamentally with what the government was doing, we should make our case as strongly as we could. But given my basic academic attitude and training, my proviso was that opposition should be evidence-based, and we should be prepared to argue the detail of our case. Moreover, I wasn’t convinced my enemies only sat opposite, rather I suspected they were all around, and probably particularly behind me.

My basic position has always been to start with the national interest and then determine all responses and participation against the objective of the need to provide good government and good governance to improve our national interests. Politics should not be seen as an end in itself – it entails responsibilities not only to emphasise genuine disagreement and criticism but also to be constructive, to be willing to offer genuine bipartisan support where appropriate, to improve government.

Unfortunately, those past attitudes, more simply defined as negativity, have thrived since. Former prime minister Tony Abbott elevated them to an art form and took great pride in having destroyed the governments of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. The objective of current opposition leader Peter Dutton is, similarly, to destroy the Albanese government, even at the expense of the national interest.

The most recent case in point is the attempt by Treasurer Jim Chalmers to broaden the scope of the public policy debate by discussing issues such as a national wellbeing framework in his “Measuring What Matters” statement.

True to form, and probably reflecting a concern they might lose the policy narrative altogether, the response of the opposition has been to mock the Chalmers initiative, focusing on his use of out-of-date data. From then treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s dismissive reference to the early proposal from Chalmers in 2020 as a “yoga mats and beads” approach, to shadow treasurer Angus Taylor’s retort last week that the model is “half-baked”, the Coalition has simply not been prepared to consider the merits of the concept. This response is at odds with Deputy Opposition Leader Sussan Ley’s challenge to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to come up with “creative solutions” to save the Commonwealth Games. It’s not hard to see why Dutton was happy to take leave with Ley in charge. No threat there.

Chalmers has acknowledged “limitations in the data”, which have been criticised for not capturing the period of the pandemic, the increases in National Disability Insurance Scheme spending, nor the sharp increases in interest rates. But it is important to appreciate that the Chalmers initiative is for an alternative framework. At this stage he has simply proved the concept – that it could be done – while stressing it is a work in progress, in the sense the elements and themes would need to be refined and realigned, in his words, and so too the various data sources and indicators. It was not meant to be definitive in terms of its dashboard, but rather to challenge those engaged in the public policy discourse to think about a broader landscape within which to propose policy developments and improvements.

Among the more baffling criticisms was Sky News’s apparent questioning of the treasurer’s sincerity, with hosts describing the budget framework as “performative caring” and straight out of the “performative Jacinda Ardern playbook”.

The use of wellbeing frameworks has gained considerable traction globally. Finland, Iceland, Scotland, Wales, Canada and New Zealand have forged government partnerships 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. The goal is to move beyond simple measures of economic growth such as GDP, recognising a nation’s interests and ambitions are multidimensional. 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.

Chalmers has identified five relevant themes – healthy, secure, sustainable, cohesive and prosperous – with issues such as inclusion, equity and fairness as “cross-cutting” dimensions. There are some 50 key indicators to monitor and to track progress. I imagine it will be an important step for the government to link this wellbeing framework to the impending restructure of the Productivity Commission.

Chalmers was at pains not to overstate the significance of the proposed framework, carefully noting it would be evolutionary, “an iterative, ongoing” model, to be “updated over time ... through continuous conversation with the community and developments in how we capture and collect data”.

It would be reasonable to expect that an opposition wanting to contribute constructively and in our national interest would work to improve the framework, for example, by suggesting alternative themes or more appropriate indicators under the various themes.

The response of the opposition suggests it doesn’t see merit in being part of this continuity. I guess it will conservatively stick with the traditional GDP measure that is captured in the last of the identified wellbeing themes.

I accept the qualification noted by Treasury that “the more indicators that are included in the Framework, the harder it becomes to provide an understandable picture of our economy and society” because “the Framework has been designed to be high-level and concise to ensure that it is accessible and meaningful to as many people as possible”.

Yes, but a comprehensive public discourse about the detail could help to refine it to a more relevant structure.

An important feature of the wellbeing framework is its emphasis broadly on our development as a “society”, and not just narrowly as an “economy”. It seems reasonable to expect Australia would stand out globally for a world-class public health system, the range and quality of our social infrastructure and the recognised effectiveness of our social security system in targeting benefits according to need. However, this country doesn’t have a good track record of sustainability in the use of natural and financial resources.

As for how to govern in line with this framework, there should be some requirement that each cabinet submission attaches a wellbeing impact statement in relation to the policy changes proposed in the submission. A similar requirement should apply to all pre-budget submissions from civil society organisations, including business, the Australian Council of Social Service and the like.

Overall, Treasurer Chalmers ought to be recognised as a reformer. His contributions already include proposals to reform the Reserve Bank and the Productivity Commission, and a significant turnaround in the federal budget and our fiscal prospects. He has managed to achieve these reforms in a hostile political environment, where the opposition has been overwhelmingly negative about his initiatives.

His proposal for a new, broader scope for our public policy discourse, aspiring to a better quality of life for all Australians, is certainly worth consideration and debate. We all have a role to contribute to its effective implementation. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 29, 2023 as "The bizarre case against wellbeing".

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