Scott Morrison highlighted some damning facts on Australians' health that need tackling with big policy overhauls

Australian federal Treasurer Scott Morrison. (Photo by Stefan Postles / Getty Images / File)

SYDNEY — Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison took the covers off a vast report from the Productivity Commission today which looks at a range of areas for major policy reforms to improve living standards and future-proof the Australian economy.

Morrison outlined some of the key points in a major speech in Canberra, ranging from resetting motoring tax policy in an era of more fuel efficient cars and electric vehicles to reforming university education funding to put more emphasis on the capabilities of students and less on publishing research.

The Productivity Commission — an independent agency which advises the government on major economic issues — was given a broad remit to consider areas for major policy reforms and the result is a 250-page report with 16 supporting papers that will now be updated every five years.

“The report references ‘the cloud’, the ‘internet of things’, Google Chrome, social media apps, 3D printing, drones, machine learning, gene technologies, robotics as new on the scene or exponentially advanced since previous agendas were crafted,” Morrison said.

“But the Commission also highlights the fact that despite these developments, the gains in productivity from technical change appear to be diminishing.”

He adds that Australia also has “the prospect of an ageing population firmly in our headlights. Fewer people of working age will have to support a growing number of people who have left the workforce.”

This last point – population ageing – is a diabolical policy challenge for governments in advanced nations around the world. Medical advances and improvements in lifestyle have extended life expectancy but health systems remain largely designed and funded for needs of a different era.

So it’s good to see this on the policy agenda.

In terms of some of the specific Australian challenges that need to be tackled, check out this short excerpt from Morrison’s speech (emphasis added):

We have the third highest life expectancy in the OECD at 82.8 years, but also spend the most years in ill-health. An entire decade, on average, spent on the sick bed. If we had the same level of ‘healthy’ life expectancy as Singapore, Australians would on average live 2.6 years longer. 

We have reduced smoking and car accident deaths, but we have one of the highest obesity rates in the world.

We have decreasing rates of disability, but 17.5% of Australians have mental or behavioural problems and we have a suicide rate that is double the rate of the best performing countries.

The PC notes that successful prevention of such mental or behavioural problems can boost labour force participation by up to 26 percentage points.

Resetting public policy to start to tackle these problems — placing increasing focus on mental health, suicide prevention, obesity, and health management in late life — will mean difficult choices.

So what’s going to happen? At this point, there is no proposed policy response, although Morrison does sound a warning bell on the likely reception to major reform proposals in the contemporary political climate.

“The price of a generation of Australians growing up without ever having known a recession is that reform comes more stubbornly and incrementally.

“We also need to understand that many Australians are now far more sceptical of change. Whenever governments mention the word ‘reform’ or ‘productivity’, they get nervous. They’ve seen this movie before. … Plus, the economic and political bandwidth available for change is narrower than it once was, made more difficult by the binary way change is viewed and exploited. Who are the winners and who are the losers? Where is the conflict?”

The report from the Productivity Commission is a good first step in at least starting to highlight some of the difficult realities that Australia faces in terms of economic and social reform.

Unfortunately — and as Morrison implied — Australians won’t be holding their collective breath for a big daring plan the community and our politicians can get behind.

But you’d hope this won’t be another call to action that will sit on the shelves in government departments gathering dust. We’ll see.

This is an opinion column.

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