Despite Challenges, the Spirit of Progress Endures

The Australian  January 02, 2013

LIFE in 2013 will have its challenges, some of them immense. But on many measures of human progress it will be the world’s best year yet. It is a prediction that goes against the grain of the spirit of catastrophism that infects our age, but the empirical evidence is irrefutable: human ingenuity, science and industry, broadly speaking, have made the world a better place. That is not to deny that there are setbacks, reversals and suffering; it is simply to put the bad news that dominates the headlines into perspective.

In the battle against illness and disease, improved healthcare, improved nutrition and medical breakthroughs such as Professor Ian Frazer’s cervical cancer vaccine are steadily improving the quality and longevity of life, even in Africa where life expectancy has reached 55 years. In Australia, male life expectancy is 79.5 years, seven years longer than in 1984. Female life expectancy is 84 years, five years higher than three decades ago. Indigenous disadvantage remains our most serious social problem, with the Australian Bureau of Statistics reporting that life expectancy for indigenous men is 67.2 years and for indigenous women 72.9 years.

While much remains to be done in rectifying extreme poverty, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, the World Bank reports that more than 1.6 billion people have gained access to clean drinking water since 1990. Despite a 35 per cent rise in global population over 30 years, the rate of extreme poverty has fallen from 52 per cent to 22 per cent. And while it gained little attention, the World Bank’s millennium development goal for the reduction of global poverty was met in 2010, five years ahead of the 2015 deadline. Not only are more people free of hunger and disease than at any time in history, the industrial and economic revolutions transforming China, India, Brazil and other developing nations through free enterprise and trade are providing more people than ever with prosperity, leisure and the opportunity to travel.

Anybody who doubts the benefits of the economic reform, more open economy and flexible labour market fostered by the Hawke, Keating and Howard governments should look at the snapshot of life in 1984 published with details of cabinet papers yesterday. In 1984, when 55 per cent of workers were trade union members, the full-time average weekly wage in Australia was $333 – or $900 in 2011 terms, adjusted for inflation. It is now $1352.

Improved quality of life has also seen us become more mobile – for work, holidays and visiting loved ones.  Australia’s domestic airlines carried 135 million passengers this year – 13 times as many as in 1984. On paper we’re also better educated, with 25 per cent of workers now holding a university degree compared with 9.6 per cent in 1984. And although the number of vehicles on the road has more than doubled since 1984 to 16.7 million, the annual road toll has fallen by more than half, from 2755 deaths to 1292 in 2011. While any death is a tragedy, our roads are considerably safer today than they were a half-century ago. As a result, and despite a bad holiday season road toll across the nation, Victoria’s road toll for 2012 was an all-time record low.  As George Bernard Shaw said, life was not meant to be easy, but with the application of human reason, it can certainly be made less hard.