There’s always a fair bit of media interest when the ABS releases Gross Domestic Product figures each quarter. The government announced last week that ours went up 0.7 per cent, but does this really make a difference to our lives?
After all, when our homes are damaged by bushfires or floods, the reconstruction or repair costs would increase GDP, but no one would think we were all somehow better off.
The truth is that while government budgets assume that GDP growth will improve the lives of everyday Australians, economic growth has little relationship to how we feel about our lives, and how happy we are. And this has never been truer, as our two largest states battle rising COVID cases and the wide social effects of lockdowns.
We need to change our focus away from the arbitrary nature of economic calculations, to what really makes a difference to us – our collective wellbeing. And it’s not an either/or: it turns out that increasing everyone’s wellbeing also creates economic prosperity.
Prioritising wellbeing is not an eccentric idea. Countries including Scotland, New Zealand, Finland, Wales and Iceland have formed Wellbeing Economy Governments (WEGo) and designed wellbeing budgets, recognising that progress in the 21st Century must include delivering human and ecological wellbeing.
The ACT is the first Australian state or territory committed to a wellbeing framework to guide policy and budget priorities. We need our federal government to make a similar commitment. Here are four key areas the government should prioritise when designing its wellbeing budget.
Invest in the early years
Every child deserves the best start in life and everyone’s life trajectory is influenced by their early years. Budget expenditure should promote positive child development programs that produce widespread and long-term benefits – especially, high-quality parenting programs. By providing knowledge and skills to expectant parents and parents of young children, these programs have been shown to improve children’s emotional, social and behavioural outcomes.
Intervening early is more successful and more economically effective than waiting until problems become entrenched. A major UK review showed parenting interventions not only helped children and parents, but also reduced later healthcare costs and crime.
Invest in education that promotes flourishing
While 20th Century education was typically seen as preparation for work, these days school is preparation for life. An essential task of education is preparing young people to have a healthy and flexible mind, allowing then to manage change and thrive in uncertainty.
To do this, we need Australian schools to provide evidence-based social and emotional learning (SEL) programs, like mindfulness training. This has been shown to build young peoples’ attention control and decision making, emotion regulation, wellbeing and resilience, empathy and compassion, and to improve their physical health and sleep quality, and reduce mental health problems.
A wellbeing Budget would take responsibility for providing the necessary resources.
Prevent mental health problems, promote mental wellbeing
Mental health problems are devastating for individuals and families, and have serious social and economic impacts. They are the biggest cause of disability and death in young people aged 14-24, according to The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
Providing adequate resources for everyone requiring mental health services is essential. But it would be even better to intervene before people reach a crisis. If the Government wants to reduce the number of Australians who develop mental health problems, they need to fund population-wide prevention programs. These will ensure everyone can acquire the knowledge and skills to manage the tough times we will all inevitably face in our lives.
Invest in the natural environment
The natural environment is the fourth essential part of a wellbeing budget. Spending time in nature has been shown to decrease stress, anxiety, and depression, have positive effects on cognitive function, physical activity and creativity. So it is particularly important that easy access to attractive natural spaces be available to all Australians, not just the rich. Protecting natural spaces is also vital to ensure the sustainable wellbeing of human and all living species.
Climate change is a pressing issue, and any Government that cares about the future of its citizens needs to act urgently to reduce global warming. The coal, oil and gas emissions that fuel global warming also produce air pollution, which results in premature birth, physical illness, cognitive impairment and early deaths, so air pollution needs to be tackled by governments without delay.
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A narrow focus on economic indicators doesn’t lead to good lives for people, or a healthy society. On the contrary, personal and social wellbeing may lead to economic prosperity. A wellbeing budget identifies outcomes that are good for people, prosperity and the planet. It would fund policies that are both compassionate and cost-effective, good for us now and for future generations.
It’s time Australia signed up to a Wellbeing Budget.