Wellbeing is not a matter of left politics or right politics, big government or small. According to most people, it’s the only way forward. 

People expect politicians and public officials to design economic systems that promote wellbeing, enable good lives and support opportunity. To meet this expectation leaders of today must recognise that the economic and public policy systems and toolkits they have inherited have shaped an economy that does not deliver for enough people.

In recent years the political axis which once helped us make sense of socio-political stances and trends, is shifting beyond left and right. As spectrums that encompass agendas such as nationalism, cosmopolitanism, and identities emerge, one likely candidate for the ‘axis-of-old’ pile might be the division traditionally drawn between those arguing for small government and proponents of a more substantial state presence.

While the reality of actual governmental size and activity was more complicated than a simple ‘big or small’, could the middle decades of this century see a more inclusive agenda, which makes this supposed ideological division redundant? Could society and its politics get beyond tussles over the size of government (let alone beyond left and right) to a more unifying agenda of how well a government actually uses its institutions and levers to set and advance shared goals?

Over the past century Australian governments of various political hues have played a critical role in shaping the economy and society. They used to set tariffs to protect local industries from global competition. They have banned activities deemed harmful to society. They supported research and innovation and established Medicare, superannuation, and the welfare state. They conducted immense capital works projects in post-war reconstruction, funded critical research and innovation, and reconfigured taxation in a way that it relies more heavily on income and consumption, rather than wealth accumulation and capital gains. More recently they set targets and established regulations regulations to decarbonise our energy systems.

Taking a step back (and perhaps in some instances charitably ascribing a lofty intent), what should such policies and agendas ultimately intend to deliver? Beyond their immediate impact, what is the real, deeper goal?

There are, of course, plenty of political theorists who would offer a scholarly answer for this.

But it seems that Australian people have their own, succinct, reply: wellbeing.

What the Purpose of Government Pulse data reveals and conceals

For the last few years, the Centre for Policy Development has asked Australians whether governments should be putting the wellbeing of the population ahead of other concerns when they make decisions.

In October 2021 70% of respondents agreed with such a priority (strongly or somewhat). By March of 2023 that proportion had risen to 75%. Nine months later in December 2023, nearly nine in ten  respondents (85%) were in agreement (again, strongly or somewhat). These responses were largely similar despite people’s demographic differences. There were only small variances, such as older people and those who have been to university marginally more likely to be in support of the idea wellbeing should guide government decision-making, above other concerns. 

One intriguing small variance is that in all survey waves, higher income earners were slightly (3 percentage points) less likely to agree with the statement than the average respondent. It is not hard to imagine that this might reflect a sense of “I made it on my own” among those most financially successful; a reluctance to concede the role of collective institutions. Such tantalising findings certainly warrant deeper conversations with Australians to understand the thought process behind such patterns, not least as they emerge despite very little differences according to the respondents’ voting preferences.

This has coincided with a growing policy focus on wellbeing – both in Australia and globally. Treasury’s Measuring What Matters (MWM) statement – Australia’s first draft of a wellbeing framework – was published between the second and third instances of this question. 

Though relatively few respondents would be consciously aware it, some may have made the connection to the growing movement of people, organisations, enterprises, and policy makers who, in their different spheres, are working towards a ‘wellbeing economy’: an economy that is designed and delivered to support and sustain the wellbeing of people and planet, now and into the future.

That the rise in support for this proposition occurred during the same period “living standards” overtook “wellbeing” as the most popular answer to “What is the purpose of government?” is not the mystery it appears to be. Wellbeing is broad – a horizontal platform that crosses policy areas and ideologies rather than a vertical pillar that sits within them. For many people it encompasses living standards, personal freedoms, critical services and social infrastructure, and more besides.  

Thus, as with most polling, the reported percentages elicit a desire to sit down with some of those polled and, over a cup of tea, discuss where their answers come from.

What, for example, did respondents think when they heard the word ‘wellbeing’? A narrow and fleeting idea akin to hedonism? A bland, corporate wellness program? Or a multidimensional, collective quality-of-life understanding?

What population were they envisaging when asked about government prioritising the “wellbeing of the population”? Their own local community? That of Australia? Perhaps even the entire world?  Were they thinking of the population of today alone, or were they mindful of the wellbeing of future generations too?

"Thus, as with most polling, the reported percentages elicit a desire to sit down with some of those polled and, over a cup of tea, discuss where their answers come from."

It’s probable that no person or group in Australia considers their own wellbeing in terms of our default measure of living standards – quarterly changes in Gross Domestic Product or even GDP per capita. As I write this in the summer holidays, wickets in the Boxing Day Tests seems a more popular measure of national progress! 

If they cast their minds ahead to what governments might do to enhance wellbeing, what did they have in mind?

CPD's findings chime with that of others

The Centre for Policy Development findings accord with global surveys including those from the UK, the US, Canada. For example:

  •   The Global Commons Alliance has found that across G20 countries, “73% agree their country’s economy should move beyond a singular focus on profit and economic growth (GDP) and focus more on human wellbeing and ecological protection and regeneration”.
  •   When Deloitte surveyed over three thousand people in the US, Canada, the UK and in Australia, over three-quarters of people supported the idea that more countries should embrace the idea of a wellbeing economy.

So, time to change the record?

The needle returns to the start of the song
And we all sing along like before

- Del Amitri, Scottish band

These results potentially suggest that despite declining trust in government, people want their governments to go beyond managerialism or narrow ideas of safety and defence. Research across Australia and comparable nations has shown that people want their governments to deliver and enable positive outcomes on several fronts. CPD’s research shows a rising concern with living standards and a mounting sentiment that public wellbeing should guide government decisions above other concerns, and particularly an expectation that governments ensure people are treated fairly, including the most vulnerable in society.

To put it another way, people expect politicians and public officials to design economic systems that  promote wellbeing, enable good lives and support opportunity. To meet this expectation leaders must recognise that the economic and public policy systems and toolkits they have inherited have shaped an economy that does not deliver for enough people (witness levels of financial distress, poverty, inequality, and so on). And that this economic system is increasingly damaging the natural world on which life itself depends.

Returning the needle to the start of the song – rolling out the same old recipes, using the same old tools, judging the results with the same old metrics and through the same old mindsets – and expecting different results is, as Einstein warned, verging on insanity.

Governments across Australia need to recognise that some economic activities need support and backing (for example, via lighter taxes or via preferential planning and procurement) because they enhance wellbeing of people and of planet. They need to heed CPD’s polling which suggests that people in Australia are ready and keen for government to go beyond use of outdated proxies and narrow agendas that see problems in isolation, while root causes go unaddressed, and politicians keep squabbling over how to attend to the symptoms. They are ready for a new song – one with wellbeing loudly in chorus!