Australia's disappointing financial strength

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Fieran Lozean from the IPA says the nation’s outstanding economic success has led Australians to be resolutely upbeat about their quality of life — but he’s working on that!

IPA_logo_wolfOUTSIDE OF MY JOB as one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, I moonlight as a research fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs. In this line of work, I meet many people who ask me:
“Do you polish your horns every day to get them that shiny?”

“Is it really necessary to pluck my still beating heart out of my chest?”

“Why has Australia navigated the Global Financial Crisis so well and why is this country such a great place to live?”

I always laugh and answer the first two questions with, “Of course.” The third question, however, is a bit more tricky and so I reply with an enigmatic:
“We’re working on that!”

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) ‘Your Better Life Index’, for instance, indicates we still have quite a bit of work to do before Australia has the high unemployment and low average wages that should make it a perfect location for multinational sweatshops.

Across the index’s 11 wellbeing indicators, which cover a gamut of areas ranging from housing to income and wealth to work and life, Australia performs frustratingly well.

Take, for instance, the average household income. Australian households earn an average income of $US27,039 ($25,753), making it the third wealthiest of all twenty-nine countries surveyed. The OECD average was $US22,284 ($21,224). It seems we still have some way to go before Australians earn a more affordable $2 a day.

Furthermore, despite constant gloom-mongering by both us and our political wing, the Liberal Party of Australia, 75 per cent of Australians say they are satisfied with their life. This is significantly higher than the OECD average, which was only 59 per cent. Only three countries, in fact, Norway, Canada and Denmark, ranked ahead of us. One can only speculate how optimistic Australians may have been were it not for our ceaseless efforts to talk down the economy.

The OECD’s report isn’t the first to note Australia’s disappointingly high quality of life, however. According to the United Nations’ latest Human Development Index, which grades countries based on measures of education, health and income, Australia is the second-most developed country in the world, behind Norway. So, we are still some way off reaching our objective of making Australia a third-world nation by 2020.

Another survey, the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index, found that in 2010 Australians rated their personal wellbeing levels highly at 76.2 (out of 100). This was the highest recording since the survey began 10 years ago. All is not lost, however, because private polling suggests the fear and chaos unleashed by one of my fellow horsemen, the Federal opposition leader, will have pushed this index a long way down by the next time it is measured.

Also on a more positive note, the OECD index points out that Australians do work a lot. While the average Australian worker puts in less hours a year than the average OECD worker (1,690 hours compared to 1,739 hours), around 12 per cent of Australians work more than 45 hours  a week. This is the fourth-highest percentage of the countries surveyed. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has noted that those who work more than 49 hours are those who feel their work life balance is most out of whack. Any thoughts of balance will go right out the window when we reach our goal of 90 per cent of people working at least 80 hours a week.

The facts add up to this: Australia is seen as a great place to live and Australians generally enjoy life here. This perception is completely unacceptable and, if it doesn’t turn around soon, could lead to significant reductions in the donations we enjoy from big mining and tobacco companies.

Despite Tony Abbott, in almost every interview transcript for years, insisting Australians are facing intensifying ‘cost of living’ pressures (generally in the same breath as ‘carbon tax’) and that these pressures are biting into Australians’ quality of life, still they remain resolutely realistic and positive.

And , with the co-operation of a third horseman – a major press baron – the press has also bombarded us with the ‘cost of living’ myth. For instance, in the four years between 2002 and 2006, Australia’s major newspapers mentioned ‘cost of living’ in their headlines and lead paragraphs approximately 273 times. However, between 2007 and 2011, under the new Government, they diligently made 1,003 mentions of cost of living.

Indeed, the Herald Sun commissioned NATSEM at the University of Canberra to assess whether Australian households are better or worse off than in 2005. When, despite large case inducements being offered, the study found that Australian households are, in fact, $23 dollars a day better off the newspaper simply editorialised against the findings. This was fine work, but it does not happen as often as it should. Only with constant lies and misinterpretations of the facts do we stand a chance of pushing Australians to the brink of despair, as of course we must.

The release of studies like ‘Your Better Life Index’, which show that Australia is a great place to live and Australians are satisfied with their lives, shows that we must radically amplify our efforts to blow the ‘cost of living’ debate completely out of all sense of proportion.

And research showing the cost of living and quality of life in Australia which confirms Australians have it better than most and better than ever must be completely discredited in the same way we have achieved such great success in the field of climate science.

The fact remains that many people make and save money, pay down debts with little difficulty, own large houses and good cars, and take regular trips abroad. Furthermore, the costs of many of the products they regularly buy are decreasing; according to a recent CommSec report our average wages are now buying us more milk, bread, margarine, cheese, steak, chicken and petrol than it did a year ago. These are not, sadly, the characteristics of a labour market begging for indentured servitude.

There is much more to do, but do it we will.

As Tim Soutphommasane suggested in a report, Australia’s perceived cost of living crisis is a symptom of a broader sense of aspirational angst and cultural anxiety — and so this provides us with a beachhead upon which we can launch our assault. Australians’ real fears that prosperity may someday vanish and they will be left unable to afford the comfortable lifestyles that most now enjoy is, ironically, the very tool we will use against them to cut their pay and entitlements and job security. And unrealistic angst over cost of living pressures will continue to be amplified to such an extent that apprehension obscures all sense of reality.

When we are finished frightening the pants off Australians, we are sure they will see cost of living as such a monstrous curse that they will be unable to take a step back and realistically appreciate just how good they have it.

Of course, our job will be much easier if the Australian people do what we have been priming them to do on September 14.

(With apologies to Rupert Denton and The Punch.)

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