You’ve never been better off. So why aren’t you happy?

“How good’s Australia?!” asked the Treasurer. “So good!” exclaimed the data rounded up by the treasury. But Australians are still feeling a bit glum.

OK, so Jim Chalmers didn’t actually ask that Morrisonian question the way I’ve painted it, accompanied by a broad grin and a folksy thumbs up. He didn’t ask it in so many words at all. Instead, he summoned a set of metrics that would reveal how well Australia is tracking on measures more directly relatable to people’s lives beyond the cold hard parameters of gross domestic product.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers’ wellbeing framework is remarkably unremarkable.
Treasurer Jim Chalmers’ wellbeing framework is remarkably unremarkable.Credit: Paul Harris

And what the data reveals is that on most objective measures, life in Australia has been improving over the past few decades.

But subjectively we don’t feel like things are getting better.

Swedish author and classical liberal historian of ideas Johan Norberg has made it his lifelong mission to tackle this discrepancy between the objective and the subjective by gathering and presenting data. Over the course of half a dozen books, with titles including Progress, he’s demonstrated that countries that liberalise their economies become prosperous and improve people’s lives on nearly every imaginable measure.

Despite the nit-picking of conservatives and Liberals, the document that Australian Treasurer Jim Chalmers launched last Friday, Measuring What Matters, reads less like “Ashram economics” and very much like the research brief for a new Norberg contribution, but focused on Australia.

Norberg’s latest book, published in June, is The Capitalist Manifesto, an exposition of the way capitalism and free markets have improved people’s lives and lifted even seemingly helpless countries out of poverty. It is also a defence of the prosperity that capitalism brings, which is not just monetary: one of the greatest gifts of human progress, Norberg argues, is that we now live long enough to see potential grandkids grow up.

In Chalmers’ own “Capitalist Manifesto”, we discover that life expectancy in Australia has increased over the last two decades, along with health-adjusted life expectancy. Sadly, longer lives and lifestyle factors have led to an increase in chronic conditions, such as coronary heart disease, cancer and diabetes. But “men and women born in 2022 could expect to live an average of 88 per cent and 87 per cent of their lives in full health, respectively”.


In the time frames the index measures, our real net disposable income has increased, as has household income and wealth. Real wages were stable before the pandemic. Employment metrics have improved, access and participation in work have improved, as has job satisfaction. Job security has remained stable. Income and wealth inequality in Australia remain stable and, benchmarked internationally, they are considered good. The proportion of children who are developmentally on track and literate and numerate has increased.

What’s more, as Norberg says, “richer countries are better at reducing and repairing environmental damage once they decide that is a priority”. And sure enough, Australia’s strong economic performance has helped us protect, repair and manage the environment. According to Measuring What Matters, we’ve reduced emissions by nearly 25 per cent since 2005. The share of renewable energy has increased by 30 per cent. Air quality has been stable between 2017 and 2022 – and stable ain’t bad for a country that is already among the best in the world. Although the same report mentions that biodiversity has “deteriorated” and stipulates a 55 per cent decline in abundance for 278 native species.

There’s a set of steak knives too. The proportion of land and water areas “dedicated to the long-term conservation of nature, its ecosystem and cultural values” has increased between 2002 and 2022: 22 per cent of land is protected, as is 45 per cent of our marine environment. The waste we produce is 3.3 per cent less per person and the proportion of waste recovered for recycling, reuse or energy has increased to 63 per cent.

It’s not all good news though. Indigenous Australians continue to have much worse outcomes on nearly all metrics.

Housing affordability, as you may have noticed, is down. As are threatened species. The same report mentions that biodiversity has “deteriorated” due to a 55 per cent decline in the abundance of 278 native species. But the progress on other measures gives hope that we’ll be able to turn that decline around.

Despite all this bounty, on subjective measures, things are not going so well. The index finds that Australians feel less safe online and believe that we’re less safe globally. We say we’re less lonely, but we’re not engaging with cultural events as much and we’re volunteering less. Despite a dramatic investment in aged and especially disability care spending over the past decade, the proportion of people living in households who receive aged or disability support who felt their needs were not being met increased. One way to read this might be as good news: raised expectations might lead to less resignation to lower standards of care. More radically for a society geared to greater outsourcing, we could speculate that people prefer being cared for by people they love rather than people who are paid to look after them. Maybe less volunteering and less voluntary care are somehow related. There’s no indication either way in the data at this point.

The gulf between subjective and objective wellbeing is perhaps the most instructive measurement in the treasurer’s new framework. Somewhere along the way, since Bob Hawke and Paul Keating liberalised the Australian economy, we seem to have forgotten that there are invisible forces making our lives steadily better. How good is that?

After he started the year with an essay on “values-based capitalism”, Chalmers’ new contribution demonstrates that liberal economics delivers the wherewithal for even glum Australians to live their best lives. No values-additive needed.

Parnell Palme McGuinness is managing director strategy and policy at award-winning campaigns firm Agenda C. She has done work for the Liberal Party and the German Greens.

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