For the better part of two decades Victoria has boasted a triple-A credit rating. International ratings agency Standard and Poors says we have a “wealthy economy” and “excellent financial management”. Victoria is currently predicting a $618 million surplus next year.
In short, our economy is in rude health despite some difficult global conditions.
But, at the same time, more than 700,000 Victorians live in poverty. Tens of thousands of people are homeless. We have a mental health system in crisis and our public schools are crying out for more money.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Adern is withering of this disconnect in her own country: “Economic growth accompanied by worsening social outcomes is not success. It is a failure.”
The truth is that economic prosperity alone is no longer a good measure of community wellbeing—if it ever was. And yet economic indicators are still the primary measure we use to assess how well our society is faring.
What Victoria needs is a new way to conceptualise, pursue and measure progress. This will be achieved by Victoria becoming a ‘wellbeing economy’.
Wellbeing economies already exist to varying degrees in New Zealand, Scotland and Iceland. These countries are putting the pursuit of key social outcomes—like delivering the basic needs for food, housing, health, safety and a good education—on par with the pursuit of good balance sheets.
So what would this mean for Victoria?
In practical terms, this would require the Victorian Government to clearly articulate its social goals and match them with concrete targets and timeframes.
For instance: by what year will Victoria build enough community and public housing to wipe the 83,000 person waitlist? What is the timeline for properly funding public schools so parents aren’t blindsided by hidden fees and so-called ‘voluntary contributions’? When will we drive the proportion of Victorians living in poverty below 10 per cent, or even five per cent? (Right now, 13.2 per cent of Victorians live below the poverty line.)
Currently, governments get away with not setting specific targets in this manner.
With goals set and publicised, ministers and government departments would be set to work developing new policies and initiatives to meet them.
If a bureaucrat or minister can’t explain how a proposed new program would contribute to achieving one of the government’s wellbeing goals, then it wouldn’t attract funding. Simple as that.
The government—perhaps with the help of an independent monitor—would regularly collect data on progress towards meeting its goals, and make these insights publicly available.
Journalists and members of the public would then be able to ask the government tough questions like “Why isn’t Victoria meeting its targets on ending homelessness?” in the same way they currently do when a government unveils disappointing economic data.
This isn’t about prioritising wellbeing above the economy. That’s a false dichotomy. The two actually go hand-in-hand; happy and healthy people supported to participate in their community make the economy stronger.
Growing Victorians’ sense of wellbeing will take time. But with the right policies in place, change is possible.
- Emma King is the CEO of the Victorian Council of Social Service.