Politics Opinion

Treasury tacks 'well-being' onto their endless growth framework

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The October Budget offers us a sparkly new “well-being” framework, which doesn't dent the gnarly old Treasury thinking of endless growth and environmental denialism.

Statement four of the October 2022 Budget is 'Measuring What Matters'. Declaims Treasury, “traditional” macroeconomic indicators don’t measure “community wellbeing”. Who knew?

Thus, the OECD, and OECD nations have tacked on trendy “frameworks” for that purpose. Incorporating well-being “indicators” across various policy “domains”.

Treasury invites your response, by the end of January. What should an Australian framework measure? This year, they promise a “stand-alone” statement. 

Statement four mimics progressive thinking. But favoured “experts and stakeholders” will mostly determine what gets measured.

Like the Budget generally, Statement’s regressive subtext is heedless population growth and chronic environmental denialism.

Ahead of any framework, we need budget transparency around population and inequality, and environment and climate. And any framework should cover population growth.

OECD is the springboard

Well-being frameworks aren’t totally new. For example, the Human Development Index and the economic, environmental and social Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) date to the 1990s and earlier. Australian GPI has retreated since 1974, when the population was around 14 million.

Looks as if the newer OECD framework will be Australia’s springboard. Statement four compares national frameworks to that of the OECD. Rates Australia, against 15 OECD policy “domains” and 32 headline “indicators”.

The top eight OECD domains are: income and wealth, social connections, knowledge and skills, environmental quality, health, housing, civic engagement, and safety.

Good list. In key domains, sure, Australia ranks highly.

But where’s “population growth”? Or “inequality”? One OECD indicator is the '80/20 income share ratio'. It’s a start.

Statement four, like the rest of Budget, buries Australia’s radical population settings, which only surface as Appendix A of Budget Paper number three.

Population growth strongly influences well-being across other domains. Particularly in Australia, it should be its own domain.

Politicians weaponise population growth

Albanese's Labor takes its licence for mass migration from, you guessed it, “stakeholders”. The in-crowd of the Jobs and Skills Summit. Mere voters aren’t consulted, despite the well-being implications. More reason than ever, to canvass population, in any framework.

COVID border closure shrank net migration to negative 85,000. The lowest figure in a century. Unemployment sank to a 50-year low, some fillip.

Yet the previous and present governments raced to reboot mass migration. Disregarding the 2050 environmental prospect, ten million extras for the arid continent of great extremes.

The Budget and the Population Statement target 235,000 in net migration. With visa processing in overdrive and unprecedented student intakes, even that will be swamped.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers and his strident propagandists (notably ex-Treasurer Costello’s Nine media) imply that 235,000 is the “normal” trend. It’s three times our historic average. Canada is the only rich nation with a more intensive immigration program.

Chalmers and Home Affairs are deploying COVID as the smokescreen for our biggest immigration drive ever. While the statement and its supporters gaslight us, the population is slumping smaller and older than expected.

With the statement ink barely dry, Chalmers isn't stopping at 235,000. As Melbourne mate Dan Andrews sings in harmony.

A worry, having unreconstructed Treasury, as wellbeing tzar towards 2050. Their Sydney’s a triumphal global city. Not the sprawling but congested burg of socioeconomic polarisation.

Even Appendix A divulges population aggregates only. By calculation, target population growth is 1.4%, as far out as 2025-26. Two to three times higher, than sensible OECD nations.

It helps Treasury via GDP growth. It doesn’t necessarily help well-being. Australia experiences per-capita GDP recessions. Under surging population, 2023 risks another.

Population growth isn’t well-being

Peak-COVID polls found ordinary voters liked the COVID migration respite. They didn’t want mass migration. Post-COVID polls go likewise. Unless you’re a media triumphalist, cherry-picking surveys from the Scanlon immigration lobby.

Treasury-brand “well-being” starts with a continually growing population. As favoured by the graduate classes, not the rest.  

A well-being framework ought to knit stuff together. But Treasury dictates population policy, dismissive of the weak Climate and Environment portfolio.

Following suit, “progressive” media punditry affects to delink climate “reform” from population. Though global emissions track with global population.

Statement four ignores this climate-change basic, on which Sustainable Population Australia (SPA) has made a detailed report.  

“Net zero” emissions can’t happen, they infer, under established global population trajectories. Over-population increases vulnerability to climate change.

Even for wealthy Australia, this imposes chronic problems:

  • Increasing water-security risks, both rural and urban;
  • Population overload in cities, stymying infrastructure and congestion relief;
  • Risky urban-fringe developments, increasingly facing fire and flood;
  • Ongoing environmental degradation and species crashes;
  • Extra 1.5m net migration by 2030, most magnifying their carbon footprints; and
  • Forget about an honest “43%” reduction in emissions by 2030

Outside of the Budget, the State of the Environment warns of “human pressures” leading to “land clearing” and associated ills. Perversely, the Budget magnifies those pressures.

“Climate action” and “protecting environment” band-aids can’t offset the population loading. Nor does Budget tackle entrenched or illegal land clearing. Or modify Australia’s notoriously timid regime of taxes and levies on fossil-fuel extraction.

Naturally, Statement four talks up Australians’ world-ranked personal wealth levels. These are largely embedded in expensive housing that increases inequality

While profits handsomely outpace labour costs. Real wages have fallen to levels of more than a decade ago. We’re the OECD’s worst per-capita greenhouse gas emitter. Our State of the Environment reports are dire.

Nations with lower population growth do better in GDP per-capita growth. Nations with rapidly growing populations don’t seem to do better for equality.

For well-being, a precautionary population policy is indicated. Not the radical Chalmers alternative. Rapid population growth will be a negative for real wages and housing affordability. It will undo the low-unemployment windfall. 

It’s time the Treasurer brought population policy out of the closet and into his speech and Budget papers. His economic parameters tables, ought to include population growth.

Our national “well-being” priority isn’t a framework per se. It’s about budget honesty on population, inequality, and environment.

Make the framework inclusive

Any Australian well-being framework is playing catchup, with our population policy.

Nevertheless, an inclusive framework might allow voters to see for themselves, domains where Australia does well. But also consider for themselves, is more population more well-being? As the Treasurer and “stakeholders” assert.

How would a framework handle education, where the political settlement is for pampering church schools, not funding state schools for educational attainment and population growth? Or health, where some query measures such as hospital beds per population?

Here’s a range of inequality and environment indicators and measures, that could be sampled, in an Australian framework. Some are reflected in the GPI or OECD Framework.

Under an inequality header:

  • (Un)employment rates;
  • Profits and incomes; inflation and wages; real unit labour costs; real GDP per capita;
  • Population growth vs productivity growth; Real wages; 90-10 or 80-20 wealth shares;
  • Housing (un)affordability; household debt;
  • Private and state school funding.

Under a population growth, and environmental quality header:

  • Total natural increase, numbers and percentage of population; 
  • Major cities, population shares and commuting/congestion trends;
  • Material footprint;
  • Greenhouse gas emissions estimate, including and excluding land clearing (LULUCF);
  • Land clearing estimates, not solely based on National Carbon Accounting (NCAS)
  • Tallies of endangered species; tallies of natural disasters.

Across such measures, it’s doubtful the first “big Australia” surge of 2005-2020 has improved ordinary well-being. Yet the second surge could last many years.

Leaving the environment aside, this phase will entrench the income and wealth positions of the top 10%-20%. Putting the environment back in, won’t improve ordinary “well-being” outcomes.

Stephen Saunders is a former public servant, consultant and 'Canberra Times' reviewer. He is on the Sustainable Population Australia Executive Committee. 

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