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Regression to the mean

By Rob Moodie - posted Wednesday, 31 October 2007

I have an uneasy feeling deep in my guts. It is a feeling that we are bit by bit becoming a meaner country. This is despite an economy that has boomed, joblessness rates dropping and outstanding examples of individual and collective philanthropy.

Is this just subjective whim?  Why do I feel this way? It must be the Tampa when we knocked back 400 refugees while African countries with one thousandth of our resources are asked to take hundreds of thousands of refugees every year. Or the way we have trashed our human rights obligations to asylum seekers, including children, who we’ve locked up and then managed to make many of them clinically mentally ill. Or the way the Stolen Generations claims to compensation were so ruthlessly chased down. Or the Cronulla riots.

Our public education and public health systems are staffed by some of the most generous and committed of Australians. But we under invest in them, and then clobber them for underperforming. Why have our federal leaders been such international recalcitrants in so stridently resisting climate change, and missing the opportunity to develop sustainable energy systems for the next generation of Australians?


I have always seen my country as a generous nation, but what does the data tell us? We rank very well (3rd) when it comes to overall wealth, life expectancy and education. But when it comes to poverty, we are a lowly 14th out of 18 OECD countries on the UN Human Poverty Index. In 2003 14 per cent of Australians were below 50 per cent of the median income level. The federal government has doubled the overseas aid budget yet as Tim Costello points out we are still 19th out of 22 OECD countries. We are fourth from the bottom on the social housing league table, and the latest Education at a Glance report from the OECD shows declining levels of investment in public education.

These are crushing results for Advance Australia Fair. In advertising terms it really diminishes our brand, as much as it diminishes us. As a nation we’re very wealthy, but were doing an awful job of enabling all Australians to enjoy that wealth.

Have a good look at the countries which have the lowest poverty scores, countries that spread their wealth, such as Sweden, Norway, Netherlands, Finland and Canada. And then have a look at the recent UNICEF report entitled An Overview of Child Wellbeing in 21 OECD rich countries. It has reviewed 40 indicators of child wellbeing that all in one way or another reflect the way we treat our young people. Is it any coincidence that the same countries that have high levels of investment in public goods, such as education, housing and health also have the highest level of well being among their children and young people?  This is the generosity dividend. And we in Australia are missing out.

Every year budget time sees many politicians genuflecting to the holy grail of personal tax cuts. Not unexpected perhaps but why have we vilified government taxes and local council rates so much? They are our contribution to our own wellbeing, and to the well being of others. And surely for those that have enough, like me, we should be pleased that nearly half is going back to our own welfare and that of others - rather than moaning about it? A progressive tax system is the hallmark of a civilised and generous society.

I worry that the spirit of the fair go – something that I’ve been brought up to believe is a quintessential part of the Australia I love – has been fading not so gently as we promote individual needs over collective needs. It is very easy to appeal to the lowest common denominator, by creating fear of the other, fear that someone else is getting an unequal or unearned share of the pie. I love the way we queue – we like order, but we can be mercilessly stirred up, if we think someone is unjustifiably jumping in ahead of us. It is always a great election ploy.

But look at the way Australians privately respond to international disasters or telethons or heart rending stories of misfortune. Look at the way we volunteer, and the way we greet each other, or the way we (generally) look after new arrivals. I believe we are, fundamentally, a generous nation, but we’ve suffered a severe case of leadership failure and we risk running down our national reserves of goodwill.


We need leaders, in all aspects of our society, not just in politics, who will step up to the real test of leadership and stand up for the underdog, not beat them down. Leaders who will protect them, not in a patronising way but in a way that articulates and demonstrates that we will do better as a nation, if we ALL do better. If we exclude people we damage them and we ultimately damage ourselves. Do we want to develop gated communities? If we shut the door to others, we then have to erect a fence and gate to keep them away, then a wall, to feel safe.

Making the fair go a reality of our daily lives isn’t easy. But we need to invest in universal education and health systems – combining public and private sector resources. Why, oh why for example did we ever stop the national dental health program? It didn’t affect those who can pay for a dentist; it just rotted the teeth of the poorest in Australia? Bring it back. Today. We need to invest our surpluses into public housing and sustainable energy. And most importantly when we sing the national anthem, we should be thinking seriously, and asking our political leaders to think seriously, and act, on the last word.

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A shorter version of this article was published in The Age on 23 October, 2007.

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About the Author

Rob Moodie is Professor of Global Health at the Nossal Institute for Global Health at the University of Melbourne. Between 1998 and 2007 he was the CEO of VicHealth. He is co-editor of three books, including Hands on Health Promotion. He is currently writing a book called Recipes for a Great Life with Gabriel Gate.

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