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Australia flying blind

In this article Warwick Smith reports why the decision by the Australian Bureau of Statistics to discontinue many programs including the Measures of Australia’s Progress due to budgetary demands, is an appalling development. Even though the ABS doesn’t have the public profile of the ABC and Medicare, its work is just as critical to the nation.

Measures of Australia’s Progress (MAP) is a ‘dashboard’ approach to measuring how well we are doing as a nation. Its development was an acknowledgement of the fact that the usual economic measures of progress are not enough on their own when it comes to understanding changes that affect well-being in Australia. MAP reports on a broad range of statistics from four categories; society, environment, economy and governance.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) have just announced that they have been forced to discontinue MAP (along with a lot of other programs) due to insufficient funding (Budget cuts: how ASIC, the ABS and the ATO are turning off the lights, Peter Martin, The Sydney Morning Herald June 8 2014). It would be a huge loss if this program is not rescued from the dustbin.

The reason we tend to use economic growth (GDP growth) as a measure of progress is, at least in part, because it’s supposed to be a proxy for well-being. The more money people have the more choices they have and the better off they are – that’s the rhetoric. It’s true that increases in income make a big difference to the well-being of very poor people. However, as you go up the income scale, increases in income have a diminishing impact on well-being.

As I’ve written elsewhere, GDP growth is of extremely limited value if you want to know about national movements in many things that really matter to people’s lives such as relationships with family and friends, community, health, environment, trust in government, job security and effective services and infrastructure like transport and communication. MAP collects data and produces reports on most of the things in that list.

Things that increase GDP can have a negative impact on our well-being. Natural disasters can increase GDP due to the cleanup and reconstruction efforts. Shipping iron ore overseas adds to GDP despite the fact that it’s actually a public asset sale and depletes our stocks.

Sometimes, providing the things people want and need has a negative impact on economic growth (like preserving a forest that miners want to bulldoze). While this is acknowledged in various pieces of legislation, like environmental protection laws, workplace safety laws etc., we have no framework for making these judgment calls in any systematic way. We should be moving towards having meaningful calculators of well-being that can be assessed alongside economic benefit in order to better inform our decision making. Cost-benefit analyses of public policy should calculate the net impact on well-being with financial costs and benefits being just one set of inputs.

If we are using GDP as a measure of progress because it is a proxy for well-being and we know it’s a flawed proxy, then it would be better to measure things that have a more direct impact on well-being. This is what MAP is trying to do.

If meaningful calculations were done, wealthy countries would often find that sacrificing some economic growth for improvements in other areas that directly improve well-being is often worthwhile.

However, in order to make these calculations and to reach this level of policy enlightenment, we need to have the data.

This is why the cuts announced by the ABS are particularly devastating even though most people would never have heard of the programs being cut. The continued collection and reporting of these measures is vitally important if we are to find a notion of progress other than the endless mouse wheel of greater and greater consumption and greater and greater environmental destruction.

The alternative is to leave intact the status quo where money is our measure and where the things we really care about are steamrolled beneath the endless drive for economic growth.

Those of you who care about where this country is heading should be up in arms about this. The ABS might not have the public profile of Medicare, the ABC or Australia Post but it’s just as important – in some ways more important. Without reporting and commentary on how our nation is doing across a broad range of indicators, we truly are flying blind and are required to put a great deal of trust in our political leaders. Trust that I’m afraid they do not deserve.

Warwick Smith is a research economist at the University of Melbourne. He blogs at and tweets @wjss44.


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  1. trevor

    Those of us who are “up in arms”, especially since the gerrymanded, media contorted, financially imperilled, Party Politically Hijacked and Constitutionally confined election of the One Dimensional Three Word Sloganeering Globalised Embarrasment Of a PM known, amongst other nomeclature, as PM Abbott the everlying, regurgitator of untruth Ad Infinitum, repeating everything twice, divisively unreconstructed f*wit, realise that there are no depths that Abbott will not go to as he redefines what is Australia.

    That Abbott has defunded another important part of the mechanisms of accountability is just normal now and your/our discomfort is not even politically noted let alone acknowledged by the master destroyer and his band of Adult f*wits masquerading as Government.

    Sad state of Affairs..

    Export Abbott not Refugees.

  2. Luke

    It is not surprising that funding for the ABS has been cut. After all, the last thing we want is reliable, evidence based data isn’t it? It will contradict our ideology.

  3. Ruth Lipscombe

    Fully agree with the above comments.
    Just when I think there is nothing more for this Nightmare of a party to dismantle etc they announce another blow to our lifestyle.

  4. Pingback: Australia flying blind | Reconstructing Economics

  5. sam

    This decision amounts to this: Statistics are being ‘unfunded’ because they are left wing bias.

    Sounds like fascism.

  6. Kaye Lee

    When researching for articles, I have used the ABS many many times. It is not only an invaluable fact-checking resource, it predicts future trends which allows governments to plan for the infrastructure and services that will be required in the years ahead.

    The ONLY area where Tony Abbott can see past 2016 is in defence where he has committed us to HUGE spending for eternity.

    He has no need for figures about our health and education and infrastructure needs. He isn’t listening to Infrastructure Australia because HE decides which roads should be built to grab votes. He isn’t consulting the Health department about how best to spend our health dollars. He isn’t consulting the Research Council to see how research money should be allocated. He isn’t listening to the over 20,000 submissions to the Gonski panel – hell, our Education Minister didn’t even read the report before rejecting it. Our head scientist has taken up knitting as he hasn’t heard from the government since they were elected let alone been consulted about anything like slashing the CSIRO. He doesn’t need to listen to anyone about climate change – he thinks it’s crap and so does George Pell (I still can’t believe the hubris of Pell in making a submission to the Senate Committee on climate change and giving lectures on the topic).

    He does not want to hear numbers about well-being that we might be able to compare as his budget highway takes us to hell. The Liberal Party have been bought and paid for. They are doing the job that their donors dictate. All else is irrelevant and oversight, scrutiny, transparency, accountability are impediments to be dispensed with. No wonder they don’t want a Federal ICAC.

  7. Napolean iv

    The idealogical ace might beat a hand full of statistics anytime if the rules allow. Why isn’t our community up in arms about the abbottocrats precipitating the removal of evidence that will convince of their crimes against the Australian community? Have Murdoch and his protege along with their teams of dissemblers softened us to the point where we give up without a fight? Do we have to assume the decision to blot out the stats is a decision made by ABS because of restricted funding. Cunning of the abbottocracy. They will profess to only having shortened up on the allocated funds while the decision to suspend these dangerous ( i.e.anti-LNP) programs will be assigned to the management of the ABS. Talk about catching a soaped pig.

  8. Bob Rafto

    If truth gets in the way of the Lying Abbott govt., it gets the chop.

    One gets the feeling that the neo Cons are attempting to mind control the population.

  9. Bob Rafto

    While the states’ coffers are boosted by royalties, analysis by the Australia Institute think tank shows that, in some cases, well over half of that money is handed straight back through direct and indirect grants.

    The Australia Institute has pored over the past six budgets from each state and territory, finding at least $17.6 billion worth of assistance for the mining sector.

    “They support the mining and fossil fuels industry more generally in quite a wide range of ways,” said the institute’s executive director Richard Denniss.

    “There are direct subsidies exempting them from taxes, for example. There’s the infrastructure that they build and supply to the mining industry, and then there’s the more indirect ways, like providing cheap services.”

    Unsurprisingly, the mining states of Queensland and Western Australia top the list for mining hand-outs, spending $9.5 and $6 billion respectively.

    Dr Denniss says in the current financial year almost 60 per cent of Queensland’s mining royalties will be given back to the industry.

    “The Queensland Government has spent about as much money supporting its mining industry as it’s spent on building new hospitals,” he observed.

  10. Diannaart

    ABS feeling the budget knife: Defunding of facts and figures by Abbott – who’da thunk it?

    Bring on the DD.

  11. darrel nay

    Australians know that we have some of the highest paid pollies in the world and we are sick of it. Abbot made a big fuss about the short-term freeze on some aspects of their bloated pay-packets but in the context of cuts to the ABS it appears the politicians win again because the apparent freeze, relatively speaking, becomes a “real” increase. It seems to me that aborting the abovementioned ABS programs is like a farmer cutting down his wheat before the seed is ripe ie. a lot of time and money spent only to destroy it before it bears full yields.

    It seems that we need to stand up as individuals, families and communities and do what we can to keep the nation rolling because we are continually being undermined and let-down by a parasitic government. The ABS is a fantastic public resource, but we all know in ourselves that we can build our communities, regardless of crap governance, even if to an extent we may be flying blind. My point here is that we don’t need statistics, necessarily, to tell us that our governments have failed to protect us against toxic GMO’s.

  12. sdrawkcaB

    I agree the ABS should be well funded. However…

    I was surveyed for a period in the 2000s.
    I did not want to be surveyed and made that clear.
    They threw legislation in my face telling me I had no choice.

    So, being a human being with an ounce of pride, I pushed back.

    I noted my answers to the first set of questions and repeated them for two years.

    My point is, just because it the ABS does not mean their data is completely accurate.

    The population has non-conforming people like me in it.

  13. Kaye Lee

    The size of their survey helps cover outliers or objectors. I think I read they survey 54,000 people. They also have census figures which give full population data every few years.

  14. sdrawkcaB

    Kaye Lee,
    You are probably right.

    I think you can work out the dissenters by the amount that put their religion as Jedi. It would be a standard deviation I suppose (2% ish) and can be ‘Bell Curved’ out.

  15. JohnB

    Abbott’s corporate masters know full well that their ideologically driven irresponsible myopic profit seeking actions are threatened by ‘too much’ data and knowledge in the hands of the plebs.
    Hence the strangling of scientific data collection/research and gathering/analysis of statistics.

    “In a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
    George Orwell

  16. darrel nay

    Quoting George Orwell – nice. That will keep the NWO on the back foot.

  17. John Massam of Western Australia

    The Bureau of Statistics, like the Commonwealth Employment Service up until it was closed by Liberal John Howard, of Irak war infamy, keeps finding facts and figures that makes the Top End of Town uncomfortable, and might incite the plebs to actually think about economics and politics.
    Besides reading the economic reform website of this author, I recommend reading the Economic Reform Australia’s newsletter.

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