The Australia 2020 Summit: dead end or path to the future?

The future is not a place to which we are
going, it is a place we are creating.
The paths to the future are not found, but made, and the activity of
making them changes both the maker and the destination. – John Schaar

Last November, the European Union convened
a historic summit in the European Parliament in Brussels to consider new ways
to define and measure ‘progress, true wealth and the well-being of nations’. The conference reached nearly universal
agreement that economic output is a misleading measure of sustainable national
progress and well-being and that a new concept of progress is needed that
integrates economic, social and environmental dimensions and enables real
comparisons between nations. Perhaps most importantly, it agreed that
developing clear, honest and comprehensive measures of national progress is essential,
not just for better policymaking, but as a fundamentally important democratic
issue: a means for better informed citizens, a stronger sense of a shared
vision and more transparent and accountable government.

Some of the same challenges face our own ‘summiteers’,
the one thousand Australians invited to the Australia 2020 conference this
weekend, as they gather to discuss ideas for a long-term strategy for Australia
and spell out our own national vision.






The summit has been criticised as an empty
talkfest that will be soon forgotten; but this is unfair on several counts. Australia’s
recent political history has been characterised by a lack of open discussion of
ideas for our future, and few attempts to involve the wider community in them.

So the summit is an exciting and innovative
development, and entirely justifiable in its own right; but some of the
criticisms will appear more valid over time if it fails to meet three

First, it must find a way to link the
complex problems which cross the rather too neat policy boundaries and discrete
questions into which the Summit program is presently divided. Second, it must
fit the plurality of its ideas within a larger, more integrated vision for the
nation that truly reflects the values and aspirations of its people.

And most importantly, the Summit must be
the beginning, not the end, of a wider and more inclusive democratic debate in
the Australian community about the kind of country we want ours to be: a debate
sorely needed and postponed far too long, that requires the voice of citizens
more than experts.

The hard truth is that Australia does not have a
national vision, one that is clearly defined and widely shared. We do not even
have a consistent way of describing our progress as a nation or in our local

For a vision to become reality needs more than
generalisations or ‘feel good’ slogans like ‘a fair go for all’. It must be based on shared values, defined
and articulated, discussed and agreed in the community, translated into
concrete policies and benchmarks, and measured regularly by key indicators. A
strategic vision for Australia cannot be created by merely adding together a
hundred good ideas.

Knowing where we want to go to as a nation
also requires a hard headed appraisal of where we are now, which is another and
more unsettling kind of ‘big picture’.

One useful
way to do this is to compare Australia with other countries with roughly
similar wealth and political systems. When we do this, the picture we get about
life and progress in Australia is uneven and often disturbing. As citizens, we
have quite a lot to worry about for Australia’s future. And it isn’t just in
climate change. We have significant and growing social problems. We have
steadily become a meaner, more unequal country and a poorer international
citizen. For a fiercely competitive country in the sporting arena, we are
chronic underachievers in some divisions of the international progress stakes.

The table
below illustrates the point. It shows Australia’s performance on a wide range
of progress measures compared to 13 other major OECD countries, with similar
wealth and political systems. The columns for overall wellbeing, human rights,
peace, democracy and the environment represent an aggregate ranking of the
country’s performance in many different areas in each of those fields. The key
aggregate, overall national wellbeing, is made up of 100 measures in areas
including education, housing, health, family wellbeing, crime, violence,
employment and ecological health.


Overall well being

Human rights

Peace Demo -cracy Environ -ment

National wealth

Gov’t spending

Income equality
Sweden 1 4 4 3 3 12 1 1
Norway 2 4 1 4 7 2 9 2
Denmark 3 2 2 2 2 3 2 6
Finland 4 1 3 1 10 10 3 3
Neth’lands 5 3 8 5 8 5 5 5
Austria 6 9 5 12 1 6 6 8
Germany 7 6 9 9 6 9 11 7
Canada 8 8 6 7 12 4 10 10
Belgium 9 7 7 10 11 8 4 4
France 10 10 12 13 5 14 8 9
UK 11 11 13 8 3 13 12 12
Australia 12 13 10 6 14 7 13 11
Italy 13 11 11 14 8 11 7 12
USA 14 14 14 11 13 1 14 14
Table: How does
Australia compare?

National progress indices
for 14 OECD countries, ranked by performance, c. 2000- 2007

performance in this league is very poor. We are 12th out of 14 on
overall wellbeing, with some of our worst areas being child poverty, family
support, maternity leave, infant mortality, employment protection, unemployment
benefits, working hours, public education spending, disability support, aged
care, youth suicide, crime victimisation, public safety, imprisonment, income
inequality, health system contributions, housing costs, media diversity and
pollution. Our environmental performance is appalling, and shows how much
ground we have to make up, not just on climate change, but in biodiversity, and
water, land and energy use.

conditions of the present, unless radically changed, will determine and delimit
our future and narrow our options for a shared national vision.

international comparisons suggest some interesting, and perhaps surprising,
conclusions about progress and wellbeing. The countries which have achieved the
highest levels of overall wellbeing are also those which perform best in human
rights and peace; and in fact, levels of income equality and government
spending in a country are a better predictor of national wellbeing than total
wealth per head. Indeed the country with the greatest wealth also has the
lowest standard of national wellbeing.

To build the
future requires at least two conditions: that we understand the present; and
that we clearly agree on our destination, the kind of society we want to be. In
a democracy these must be collective processes. Five years ago, Canadians
launched a revolutionary new democratic program, the Canadian Index of
Wellbeing, a huge national collaboration which aims to do exactly this. It will
provide reliable, accessible and comprehensive information to Canadians about
the state of their nation, measured against the values that matter to citizens.
The OECD has taken up this model on a global scale in its project, ‘Measuring
and defining the progress of societies’. Surely this is a fitting commitment
for a new Australian government.


: Horvath, R., 2004, ‘Australia: lucky country or laggard?’,
Australian Review of Public Affairs.
‘Wellbeing rank’ is based on overall performance on 100 indicators
across all major fields of wellbeing for c. 2000, cited in Tiffen, R. and
Gittins, R., 2004. How Australia
Melbourne, Cambridge University Press. See:

Average of ranks in two studies,
1992 and 2007: (1) Humana, a UN
endorsed index which compares
performance on 30 key human rights, mostly civil and political, some economic
and social. See: Humana, C. 1992. World
Human Rights Guide;
(2) Observer (Guardian) Index, based on reported human
rights abuses in ten civil rights areas: Extrajudicial executions, Disappearances’,
Torture and inhuman treatment, Deaths in custody, Prisoners of conscience,
Unfair trials, Detention without charge or trial, Executions (death penalty),
Sentence of death, and Abuses
by armed opposition group. See:,,258329,00.html
(accessed 20/6/07)

Peace: Global Peace Index, 2007, ‘Methodology, results and

Environment: Overall ranking on 13 key environmental measures in five
fields: Biodiversity, greenhouse gases,
air pollution and petrol use, energy usage; ecological footprint & water

Democracy: Source: World Audit, 2004,

National Wealth: GDP per head in
2000, OECD (2002)

: Total government outlays as % of GDP, 1990-1999, ranked
from highest (Sweden, 63.2%) to lowest (USA, 36.2%), mean at 47.8%. OECD
Source: OECD, Historical statistics 1960-1995, 1970-1999.

: Luxembourg
Income Study, Gini coefficients. Figures for mid to late 1990s. See:
Income and wealth figures are cited in Tiffen and Gittins, above.

Table Compiled By: Adjunct Professor M.
Salvaris, RMIT University October 2007,


Leave a Comment