The first analysis of Australia’s “national wellbeing”, conducted in 2020-21, has found that nearly half the population (46.6 per cent) of all ages had one or more chronic conditions, and almost one in five people (18.6 per cent) had two or more chronic conditions – a state of health known as “multimorbidity”. 

The Federal Government study, titled Measuring What Matters, noted that, ‘Many chronic conditions have behavioural and biomedical risk factors that contribute to their development, for example, tobacco smoking, insufficient physical activity, poor diet, excess weight, and high blood pressure or cholesterol. 

‘While recognising these risks can be driven or reinforced by factors beyond a person’s control, the management of risk factors can reduce the likelihood of developing a chronic condition – resulting in health and wellbeing gains throughout the course of life.’

The aim of the ongoing project is to track progress towards a more healthy, secure, sustainable, cohesive and prosperous Australia.

‘Measures beyond Gross Domestic Product (GDP), employment and other traditional economic indicators capture what is important to people, communities, and the country both now and in the future,’ the report noted.

‘The way we measure wellbeing drives public discussions and influences how we drive progress. The Framework can help inform discussions of the type of society we want to live in and how that may be achieved.’

The Measuring What Matters Framework has five wellbeing themes: health, security (personal, financial and housing), sustainability, cohesiveness and prosperity. 

Launching the study, Treasurer Jim Chalmers said, ‘These measures are in addition to, not instead of, all the other traditional ways we measure our economy, like GDP and employment… Measuring What Matters helps us put people and progress, fairness and opportunity at the very core of our thinking about our economy and our society, now and into the future.’

If judged on health-related criteria alone, the wellbeing state of the nation is a matter for serious concern. 

The section detailing “Equitable access to quality health and care services” reports a deterioration in the key categories of wait times for GP and specialist appointments, and the delivery of disability and aged care services at home. 

The sole (yet slight) improvement was in the number of people who delayed or did not see a GP when necessary. The number who delayed or did not see a medical specialist was stable between 2013-2021 at 8 percent. Also stable was the proportion (13 per cent) of people who experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress.

Criticised on the basis that the data was gathered before the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsquent rate hikes and prices rises of recent times, the Treasurer noted that the study was only the first cut of what will be an ongoing process.

Or in document-speak, ‘Just like other countries around the world, Australia’s approach to Measuring What Matters will be an iterative, ongoing one – moulded through continuous conversation with the community and developments in how we collect and capture data. As part of this process, we will take feedback on how often the statement should be released.’

As the saying goes, if you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it. 

However, some of the data is… well, clearly outdated, and at its core lies the information about housing and homelessness. For example, 20.7 per cent of households experienced a cash flow problem in the past year (2020), and 18.7 per cent were unable to raise $2,000 when needed. Both figures were recorded as having “deteriorated” since 2006, as had the homeless rate (48 per 10,000 people).

With fixed term mortgages now expiring for many borrowers and the high cost of household essentials, further deterioration is likely to be occurring. Indeed, the demand for homelessness services rose 7.5 per cent across Australia from December-March, with women and children making up 74% of those accessing services.

Kate Colvin, the chief executive of Homelessness Australia, said the increase was ‘unheard of… This is just one terrible side effect of the worst housing crisis in living memory.’

Speaking of other countries and iterative processes, faraway Bhutan has produced a “gross national happiness” index for nearly two decades, computing similar indices - living standards, health, education, environment, community, time-use, psychological well-being, governance, and culture. Their population rates the happiness level at 78 per cent positive.

A significant number of Australians have little to look forward to, notably those who rent homes in an over-heated market and have minimal savings, who will live longer (females to average 85.4 years, males to 81.3) but with more chronic disease and a greater likelihood of putting off seeking medical attention. 

No doubt we will see more numbers about their plight when the next study of Australia’s “national happiness” hits the shelves.