This publication is about Australia's progress. It is intended to help Australians address the question, 'Has life in our country got better, especially during the past decade?'
Answering the question is far from easy. Indeed there can be no definitive answer, because we all have our own views about what is most important to individual and national life. The ABS hopes that Australians will use these headline indicators to form their own views of how our country is progressing.
A reader's assessment of whether Australia is, on balance, progressing will depend on the relative importance he or she places on each dimension. For some readers, an improvement in the health and education of Australians might be more important than a decline in our biodiversity. Others might disagree.
The reader's overall assessment might also be based upon the strength of progress or regress in each dimension. Or it might be based on patterns that underlie the national trends - so it might be important to know not just whether health is improving for the Australian population overall, but also whether it is improving for particular groups of Australians (such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples). The commentary on each indicator provides additional information of these kinds.
The suite of indicators presented in this publication suggests progress in some areas of Australian life and regress in others. What follows is a very brief summary of information embodied in the headline indicators. Overall progress, as explained above, should not be assessed by simply counting the numbers of areas getting better and subtracting those getting worse. Some aspects of progress (especially aspects such as national income and national wealth) are more easily encapsulated in a small number of indicators, than are some social and environmental aspects of progress. And some readers will give greater importance to some progress indicators than others.
Three headline indicators are associated with this area of progress. All three suggest progress during the past decade.
During the past decade, Australians' health improved - children born in 2001 were expected to live three years longer than those born in 1991. Indigenous Australians, however, have a life expectancy that is considerably lower than other Australians.
Education and training
During the past 10 years, the Australian population became more educated - between 1993 and 2003 the proportion of people aged 25-64 years with a vocational or higher education qualification rose from 45% to 55%.
Since the last recession in the early 1990s the unemployment rate has gradually declined, and the unemployment rate in 2003 was 5.9%.
Progress: The economy and economic resources
Five headline dimensions are presented, although indicators are only available for four (National income, Financial hardship, National wealth, and Productivity). There appears to have been progress in these dimensions.
Australia experienced significant real income growth during the past decade. Between 1992-93 and 2002-03, real net national disposable income per capita grew by around 2.8% a year.
Between 1994-95 to 2000-01 the real income of less well-off Australians (those in the second and third lowest deciles of the income distribution) grew by 8%. But the incomes of better-off groups increased by proportionally more.
National wealth, as measured in Australia's balance sheet, grew during the 1990s. Real wealth per person increased by about 0.6% a year between 1993 and 2003.
Housing is generally good in Australia, although poor or inadequate housing is a problem for some groups, especially for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in remote areas. No headline indicator is presented.
In recent years Australia has experienced improved rates of productivity growth. During the decade 1992-93 to 2002-03, Australia's multifactor productivity rose 1.3% per year on average.
Progress: The environment
It is difficult to obtain national time series data that encapsulate the changes in Australia's natural capital. Several headline indicators suggest regress for some aspects of the environment during the past decade.
The natural landscape
Biodiversity cannot be measured comprehensively, but some experts, such as those on the State of the Environment Committee, believe Australian biodiversity declined during the past decade. This is partly encapsulated in a rise in the numbers of threatened birds and mammals. Land clearance, one influence thought to be reducing biodiversity, decreased by about 40% between 1991 and 2001. The area of land protected in national parks and the like increased.
In 2000, about 5.7 million hectares of land were affected by, or at high risk of developing, dryland salinity, a widespread form of land degradation.
Detailed national time series data are not available. But a variety of partial evidence points to a decline in the quality of some of Australia's waterways. In 2000 about one-quarter of Australia's surface water management areas were classed as highly used or overused.
The human environment
Australia's air remains relatively clean by the standards of other developed nations. The available indicators, such as the incidence of fine particle pollution in several cities, suggest that Australian air quality has improved during the past decade, despite increased motor vehicle use.
Oceans and estuaries
No headline indicator is presented although the commentary discusses a range of information about the pressures on - and state of - Australia's marine ecosystems.
International environmental concerns
Australia's total greenhouse gas emissions in 2001 were about 4% higher than they were in 1991. Per capita, we have one of the world's highest levels of greenhouse gas emissions, although our per capita emissions are decreasing, as are our emissions per $ of GDP.
Our heavy reliance on fossil fuel burning for energy rather than other forms of power (such as nuclear or hydro-electricity), the structure of our economy and our changes in Australian land use are three influences behind our high emmissions.
Progress: Living together
Three dimensions of progress are covered here, although there is no attempt to assess overall progress in two of them.
Family, community and social cohesion
Family and community are important aspects of society. The quality and strength of people's relationships and bonds with others - their family, friends and the wider community - are important ingredients of the level of social cohesion. And a more cohesive society is one in which communities are strong and inclusive, and where fewer people fall through the cracks. Rather than present a single indicator, this commentary presents some measures which illustrate aspects of family and community life in Australia, particularly those that are important to social cohesion.
Though small, the changes in the prevalence rates for personal crimes between 1998 and 2002 showed an increase from 4.8% to 5.3%. Most of these people were assaulted. Between 1993 and 2002, there was little change in the proportion of households that were the victim of a household crime (an actual or attempted break-in or motor vehicle theft) and it remained at a little below 9%.
Democracy, governance and citizenship
National life is influenced, not just by material qualities such as economic output, health and education, but also by many intangible qualities such as the quality of our public life, the fairness of our society, the health of democracy and the extent to which citizens of Australia participate actively in their communities or cooperate with one another. Rather than present a single indicator, this commentary presents some measures which illustrate aspects of democracy, governance and citizenship.
Links between dimensions of progress
Most, if not all, of these dimensions of progress are linked. Changes in one dimension will be associated with changes in many others - sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. A few of these links are outlined in each headline commentary; but many other important links are not discussed.
Plans for the future
The next issue of Measures of Australia's Progress is planned for mid-2005. The ABS hopes to continue to improve the publication in the future, recognising that it will doubtless evolve: important measures of progress may have been omitted, people's views about progress will change, and new data will become available.