Inheriting unhappiness

A rather alarming statistic turned up in the Australian Council of Social Services annual wealth and income snapshot last week. Not even the authors appreciated its significance.

The ACOSS report; the UN Human Development Report; and the World Happines Rreport all came down last week.

They show that Australians are reasonably happy but we are getting more miserable. Young people especially are getting more miserable. They show the rich are getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Not new, but still true.

Meanwhile, all media and economic eyes have been on GDP; CPI and employment figures, as if they were the only ways to measure progress and advancement, when clearly they are not.

Together those statistics show that happiness and well-being are not correlated with increasing absolute wealth. To the contrary. Happiness and well-being measured within nations and compared across nations are directly correlated with the following:

Low population and or zero population growth.

Greater equality of income and wealth.

Access to free or affordable education and health.

Secure retirement incomes.

Affordable and secure housing.

A sense that government is doing as much as it can on the environment.

On all of these measures since the Howard Government came to power in 1996, Australia has gone backwards, especially since 2013. And Australia’s rating on happiness and well-being has fallen significantly since 2013. Indeed, it has fallen catastrophically and alarmingly among young people since 2013, leading to increased mental health metrics and other societal pathologies (which cost us all).

Now to the alarming statistic. It is complex that is why it was largely missed. The ACOSS survey told us about the continuing overall trend. Baby boomers, basking in property-tax breaks and benefiting from their free education and years of free health care are doing so well that inequality in society is palpable. Younger people struggle with HECS and HELP; the blackmail that forces them into private health insurance they neither want nor should need; the casualisation of the workforce; and slow wages growth.

The highest 10% of households ranked by wealth possess 44% of all wealth in Australia, the ACOSS research said. Then it broke the figure down into three groups: those aged under 35; those between 35 and 65; and those over 65. It then looked at wealth distribution within each age group. 

Guess which group had the highest – by far – increase in inequality in the past 10 years? –  It was not the rich boomers or the established middle, but the youngest group.

In under-35 age group in the past 20 years, the cumulative wealth of the top 10 per cent more than doubled, growing by 126 per cent – much more than the wealth accretion of the top 10 per cent of the two older groups (less than double).

In short, the young rich are getting richer at an alarmingly higher rate than the older rich. The obvious projection is for a much more unequal society.

The top 10 per cent of under 35-year-olds now have half the total wealth of that age group.

The property-tax breaks, the feeding of private schools and inefficient private health funds, the starving of public health and public education, and high-immigration fuelled wage busting which began when the Howard-Costello Government came to power in 1996, is now feeding down to younger people who have literally inherited the growing inequality.

This is John Howard squared. And unless there is an earnest deHowardisation program, Australia is headed for a dystopian unequal society – quite contrary to the iconic egalitarianism that used to be Australia, but is now a myth.

Yes, we know the whole of society is getting more unequal, but the fact that the younger cohort is getting even more unequal than society as a whole bespeaks a woeful future to inherit.

The dream of universal, affordable public health insurance which looked after everyone is on the verge of collapse. Another publication last week – the Australian Medical Association’s annual health report – revealed that waiting times at public hospitals in Australia are the longest on record.

Health care delayed is health care denied.

People are waiting twice as long as they were 20 years ago. Again, a legacy of the Howard Government’s funding emphasis on the private sector and bribing and blackmailing people into inefficient private-health insurance at the cost of the public system.

Specialists are not being paid enough. The private-insurance is creaking with gap payments so high that only the very well off can afford both the insurance and the gap payment required before in can be drawn upon. Gap payments are often more than the Medicare rebate. This means that specialists working (usually part-time) in the public system can only be doing it out of professional love.

It is a 20-year ideology-driven corrosion of what was a fine universal health system that gave security to people, and contributed to overall happiness. These days fear of illness or injury haunts nearly every household.

The statistics do not lie. It is the same story in education and the in the way the tax system shifts wealth to the already wealthy. And it is down to public policy. The Coalition’s policies began the trend in 1996. The Rudd-Gillard Government did little to arrest it, with the exception of the NDIS. The Coalition since 2013 made it worse.

The Albanese Government is doing far too little while pouring unfunded billions into defence which will only strain public health and education more.

The massive defence spending should be borne by those who benefit most from its protection – those with highest wealth. What would be wrong with a special defence levy of say, 5 per cent, on incomes above, say, $400,000?

The Government should be asking the same question about its citizens as parents often (in a less direct way) ask about their children.

Should you aim and wish for your grown children to have a 2-3 per cent increase in their income each year, or should you aim and wish for them to be educated, have access to free health care, and be happy?

Crispin Hull

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 23 April 2024.

5 thoughts on “Inheriting unhappiness”

  1. Thank you for your article exposing the legacies of the Howard govt our country is saddled with. It goes to prove that neolibralism and hands off by govt policies have created the predicament we are in .

  2. I thank you for your honesty and courage for stating publicly what to me has been blindingly obvious for over 20 years;
    “On all of these measures since the Howard government came to power in 1996, Australia has gone backwards, especially since 2013.”

    Your media colleagues always tend to skirt around the bold truth that all, repeat all, od Australia’s current woes can be directly linked back to the Howard government and its outrageous second, third and fourth acts bringing the sorry saga to a final close with the loss of government. Some of them do make reference to policies introduced ‘some years back’ or just ‘previous government decisions’ but it is disingenuous of them not state the obvious being the Howard government and it’s neo-liberal successors.

    I am sure that most Australians really don’t know much about politics and are scared to show their ignorance by not asking questions, joining the dots, or just admitting that something is drastically wrong with our once great country so bold, honest and truthful statements like yours are fundamental to force comment, debate and finally recognition of the cause of the sad and unfortunate state of the nation.

    I was British born and emigrated to Australia with my parents under the assisted passage program in 1950 but in the early 1970’s sought and was granted Australian citizenship at a time when it was not necessary to do so. I am stlll proud of that decision and my country and I would like to see the “Fair Go” Australia return an blossom again, preferably before I meet my maker. Your article just might be the wake-up call to start that process.

    For the record, I was a student of Public Policy(and economics) at ANU just prior to the Howard government and a federal government public servant for nigh on 35years.

    Thanks again and please keep on telling people the REAL story behind our nation’s many woes.

  3. Thanks, Crispin.
    1. Do recent immigrants follow the same trends as those whose families have been here for two or more generations?

    2. You say “The massive defence spending should be borne by those who benefit most from its protection – those with highest wealth. What would be wrong with a special defence levy of say, 5 per cent, on incomes above, say, $400,000?” But you are conflating wealth and incomes. There are many high wealth individuals and families who manage to present their incomes as disproportionately low.

  4. Crispin,
    I hate to say it but there’s more to Australia’s future than just the current inequality, which will continue to worsen until… Get hold of the book ‘the fourth turning’ if you can. The authors conclusion and that of many others, including myself is that we are about to enter the ‘greater depression’. This will create a crisis that will lead, after much suffering from 90+% of the population to a revolution in this Country. The Army and Police will be on the peoples side because they are us, not part of the eilite 1% that have all the power currently. Politicians will have to put in place a Roosevelt ‘new deal’. They’ll have no choice! I just hope that similiar to 1939, it won’t end until WWW3 breaks out. Reform will be forced upon our Political system, just like in 1917, in Russia.

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