Australia has been noted as a global leader for growth in civil society wellbeing due to public safety, gender equality, intergroup cohesion and strong public engagement on policy due to compulsory voting and platforms like ABC’s QandA.
The latest snapshot and recent progress report of the Boston Consulting Group’s Sustainable Economic Development Assessment, released this week, put Australia in a rarefied group of top nations that are going forward in civil society wellbeing. SEDA measures a snapshot of current wellbeing and separately ranks progress since 2006. It’s difficult to differentiate developed countries in the former, but what’s surprising is that Australia makes an appearance the progress ranking.
It’s not that the world is watching what we broadcast, rather, it’s that Australians not only watch and read policy debates, they participate. Campaigns to close the gap for disadvantaged groups and end inequality get wide attention in Australia.
The SEDA was however quite harsh on Australia on a number of indicators, such as environment policy — where Australia ranks close to the very bottom out of 149 countries — and failing to invest in roads and rail despite ongoing economic growth.
While nobody would be surprised that Australia continues to be rated top of the world of economic stability, the strong showing for recent indicators of civil society wellbeing might be seen to conflict with much of public sentiment towards civil institutions. A recent Essential Report poll showed the Australian Public Service was only 32% trusted, although still above federal and state parliaments, trusted only 26% and 24% respectively. Australia’s most trusted institution is the ABC at 53%.
Despite doubt in our politicians, and to some degree the public servants implementing those policies, the fact Australians are eager to debate their differences of opinion on public policy in the media, online, through community cabinet-style events, or just ask a question of the nation’s thinkers on a television talk show, puts Australia ahead of the pack.
Why is civil society important for economic development? The SEDA authors point out that enabling citizens to become involved in shaping public policies creates trust, and high levels of trust instil the confidence needed to start businesses and make people feel safe and secure. Australia needs no additional education on the value of intergroup cohesion or gender equality as a productivity driver for the nation.
Miguel Carrasco, BCG’s Canberra office managing director, cautioned that these types of rankings are relative.
“Australia already had a strong civil society but compared to other countries we also appear to be making more progress at continuing to strengthen it.”
“Of course we rank highly on civic engagement because of compulsory voting, but Australians are big users of social media and we have seen some very successful examples of civic activism in recent years through groups like GetUp, campaigns such as Every Australian Counts for the NDIS, and I think we are seeing one play out right now on marriage equality. Australia also has high levels of volunteering, engagement in community groups and employment by NGOs.”
While we do appear very high in on these measures, there are countries with better anti-discrimination mechanisms, Carrasco told The Mandarin, and others could look at Australia’s record on asylum seekers and wonder if we’ve really top tier for intergroup cohesion.
“While we may not be world leaders in gender equality, Australia does seem to be catching up. I would say that in business at least, there is certainly a greater awareness of the gap that still exists and a better understanding of how to close it. Organisations like Chief Executive Women and Male Champions of Change are probably good examples of this.”
We are also demanding more accountability from our governments, he said: “Our freedom of information regime is more open than it used to be and the state and federal governments have over the last few years made various commitments and steps towards to open data and open government.”
“Australia also generally has lower rates of crime, violence and internal conflict than many other countries.”