Australia’s social progress falters after decade of political uncertainty

10 October 2018 6 min. read
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Australia is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. There is a common assumption that with wealth comes a national obligation to increase the living standards of the citizens which collectively accumulated said wealth. The notion of sharing wealth evenly amongst compatriots is also considered linear. It does not stop nor reverse, regardless of the policy of the day. In Australia however, it seems that the instability of national politics is effecting the health of the community.

As a forward note: In this context, socially progressive does not have anything to do with left-wing or right-wing, nor with conservative or progressive. Rather the dataset rests on a measure which looks beyond economic means – gross domestic product etc. – and focuses on basic human needs, the foundations of wellbeing and opportunity (including what facilitates both). Within these sets may include concepts which are attributed to one side of politics or the other, but are united by their definition of ‘what makes a healthy society’. 

Australia at the beginning of the 21st century was one of the most socially progressive countries in the world. The country was making strides when it came to renewable energy policy and was creating a framework for limiting the amount of carbon that was released into the atmosphere. Australia was also making leaps in terms of access to knowledge, inclusiveness and access to information and communications. All built on top of a hundred years of institutional rights, freedoms and democratic values.

Today, Australia sits at 15th on the Social Progress Imperative’s Index 2018 – a global non-profit supported by Deloitte – and whilst that’s not a bad position overall, Australia has slowed down on it’s commitment to society as a whole, beyond economics. In real terms, Australia has regressed six spots over the past year and dropped from fourth spot in 2016. It’s not the position that’s the issue, it’s the drop.

“Australia hasn’t performed badly. It is just that our gains have been modest and other nations had recorded a greater improvement in key areas, pushing us from 9th to 15th place on the Index,” said Rob Hillard, Deloitte Australia Chief Strategy and Innovation officer.

Australia’s social progress falters after decade of political uncertainty

 As a collaborative, the world at large is advancing in terms of both the social and environmental health in communities. However Australia has now joined a small group of countries including civil war-torn Yemen, economic and political crisis-wretched Brazil and Donald Trump’s United States, the likes of which have experienced some of the biggest declines over the past year. Whilst Australia may consider itself the lucky country, that luck is not being shared the way that it is across top performers. 

“We are still a country with an enviable standard of living and score highly in diverse areas such as for our clean water, education, freedom of expression. But the Index notes Australia’s high greenhouse emissions and marks us down for the refugees being held on Manus Island and Narau,” Hillard said.

These issues frame a picture of polarisation in Australia which has led to the rise of political instability across the country. Whilst this is not an endemic issue to Australia, the results are the same; Australia is a country which is loosing its grip on the things which enabled its prosperity in the first place. The two party political system is feeding the clash between both Liberal and Labor as well as in-party fighting and is putting a handbrake on any progress with a focus on long term gains.

“You need continuity of political decision making on complex policy areas. The rate of change that we’ve had in political leadership has made this very difficult," states Hillard. “If you change government too often, and you change policy too often, it actually doesn’t matter whether a policy is ideal or not, you’re not leveraging the best of that policy in the time you've got.”

“If you change government too often, and you change policy too often, it actually doesn’t matter whether a policy is ideal or not, you’re not leveraging the best of that policy in the time you've got.”
– Rob Hillard, Deloitte Australia

This can be seen time and time again when it comes to Australian policy. Think the carbon tax, the NBN or the East-West link in Victoria for an example of when changing government reverses the policy of the outgoing party. In house fighting and the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd-Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison saga also hamper efforts to create best long-term policy and instead sets a focus on short term political gain.

Political stability leads to economic vitality

It is another common assumption that economic growth is built through political stability or at least on the basis of it. This is especially true for international investors and business when considering to put money into an international expansion or foreign opportunity. An often-cited example of this is The Netherlands – where multiparty government coalitions build of existing policy and enact long term strategies – and perhaps a more controversial example is China and the one party system.

Within these two examples, there is no infighting between two parties and no political backflips when the other of two parties takes office every four years. Thus when an investment is made in their country, it is unlikely that in a further four years, the regulations or political climate will change drastically. A recent example of this is Brexit. Today, with one party for and the other against leaving the European Union, it is impossible to predict how an investment today in the UK will fair in the next few years or beyond.

However, Hillard admits that this is not all bad news as political inaction on social progress has prompted the business community to become movers and shakers. Deloitte are a prime example of a multinational firm who are utilising their position as industry leaders to promote positive impact issues. This can be seen in itself in the consulting firm’s involvement in the Social Progress Index.

“With an increasingly complex set of global challenges we believe that business should actively collaborate to drive policies and initiatives that seek to improve the wellbeing of society and facilitate economic growth,” Hillard concludes. 

Related: Deloitte places the value of Great Barrier Reef at $56 billion.