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 conditions.

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

PeaceDemo -cracyEnviron -ment

National wealth

Gov’t spending

Income equality
Table: How does
Australia compare?

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

Australia’s 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.

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

The 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.



Overall wellbeing: 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 Compares, Melbourne, Cambridge University Press. See:

Human Rights:
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 findings’,

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

Democracy: Source: World Audit, 2004,

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

Government Spending: 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.

Income Inequality: 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