Beyond GDP – how Australia could help redefine well-being

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals Summit drew an unprecedented show of support from the General Assembly of nations. Reuters/Mike Segar

New prime minister Malcolm Turnbull is selling a vision for Australia focused on innovation and embracing the opportunities that come with being part of a global economy. How this new approach will translate into specific policy initiatives will be the test of the substance of this agenda.

His style is markedly different to that of the former Abbott government, which was responsible for winding back a number of innovative initiatives that had gained international interest including tools which the Australian Bureau of Statistics developed which gave a much clearer picture of how we are progressing as a society.

But an opportunity to re-set could well come at the 5th Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) World Forum – to be held in Guadalajara, Mexico on 13-15 October.

The World Forum will look at all aspects of modern life, from the challenge of designing liveable cities, which encompasses transport infrastructure - a long-standing matter of interest for Turnbull - as well as policy priorities such as equity in education and employment opportunities, child wellbeing and environmental sustainability.

But its main function this year is in discussing the limitations of using the economic indicator of GDP as a measurement of progress, and considering alternatives.

With its membership of 34 developed nations, the OECD gathers national statistics to generate reports and tools to address primary policy areas and to stimulate economic activity.

Within the OECD and national governments there is growing recognition that the well-being of citizens does not automatically flow from economic growth and that the natural environment can no longer be taken for granted and must be preserved. These growing pressures call for a more refined approach to the statistics and policies that shape our societies, including new tools for measuring wellbeing and living with planetary boundaries.

Sustainability has moved to centre stage in the global agenda for national policy as overall population growth and increases in consumption have accelerated environmental degradation. The UN’s Millennium Development Goals, which focused on elevating developing nations, have now been replaced by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The 17 key policy areas for developed and developing nations alike have been ratified which address human well-being while consciously managing the impacts of society on the environment for the sake of future generations.

The UN SDG Summit held in New York last month drew an unprecedented show of support from the General Assembly of nations, including the Chinese President Xi Jingping, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and included presentations from Nobel Laureates and Pope Francis.

The OECD will be working on a detailed response to the SDGs and continue to pursue its work on the broad policy areas contained within the goals.

Until recently Australia held a leadership role in the OECD around discussions about changing the definition of progress beyond economic growth and the importance of well-being and sustainability.

The Measures of Australia’s Progress (MAP) project by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) was showcased as the benchmark for developed nations at previous OECD World Forums.

This program was axed under the Abbott government and currently the environmental statistics being gathered by the ABS is confined primarily water and energy consumption rather than focused on long term sustainability of ecosystems. Social programs have also been wound back, reducing the ability of policy makers to use data to inform policy decisions.

Conservative governments, including the Coalition, typically rely more on “trickle down” economics, which assumes that if there is more wealth in the country then all the population will benefit in some way through economic activity. This notion has been squarely knocked on the head by French economist Thomas Piketty, whose book Capital in the 21st Century, sparked an international discourse on growing wealth inequality.

The OECD World Forum will present best practices and case studies to inform policy development. Host country Mexico will provide perspectives from the Latin American region, which may be less economically powerful but enjoys other signs of success - such as Costa Rica, which consistently ranks in the top three of the world’s happiest people.

Other indicators beyond GDP are starting to rise in prominence. In Australia, leading philanthropist Steve Killelea successfully launched the tally of the Global Peace Index at the United Nations, with 162 countries now participating in this annual set of numbers. The Australian National Development Index is on the World Forum agenda, which evolved from the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW) project. The CIW is the international benchmark project for citizen consultation for measuring and informing policy priorities.

The federal opposition is warning Australians that Turnbull is of the same mould as Abbott and that Coalition policies will remain relatively unchanged. With each policy announcement the new direction for the country is shaped. The OECD World Forum provides an opportunity to examine modern policy challenges and evaluate Australia’s relative performance in the major policy domains.

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