OPINION

There's too much emphasis on economic growth

The focus of debate this week has again been on economic growth, with the release of the national accounts numbers for the March quarter. Measured GDP growth was a weak 0.4 per cent for the quarter, and just 1.8 per cent for the year to the March quarter, the weakest annual growth figure since the Global Financial Crisis.

Concern is mounting that with this the third quarter of weak growth we may be drifting towards a recession, generating calls for the government to do more to stimulate growth and secure jobs.

The focus of Morrison's re-election strategy was on a strong economy and his commitment to keep it that way - all just political rhetoric, not really borne out by the fundamentals and facts.

More broadly, there's increasing focus on the inadequacy of GDP as a relevant measure, as it ignores the social and environmental consequences of the pursuit of economic growth, as well as not necessarily being a measure of our nation's happiness and well-being.

For example, the LNP election position was on the short-term, more growth and jobs including more coal mining and power, ignoring the longer-term climate, social (especially health) and inter-generational impacts and consequences.

While the strategy worked and ensured Morrison's re-election, probably mostly because Shorten was seen as an even bigger risk, there's growing concern at many levels about these broader dimensions and issues.

Business is becoming increasingly concerned about things such as their social licence, carbon footprint, sustainability and what are referred to as ESG - environmental, social and governance issues -arising in their corporate practices. Business can't just be about maximising profits.

The focus of Morrison's re-election strategy was on a strong economy and his commitment to keep it that way - all just political rhetoric, not really borne out by the fundamentals.

Much of this concern has been generated by investors responding to broader community concerns and pressures, as well as things such as the Banking Royal Commission that exposed the culture of greed that ignored the responsibilities of their social licence, and exploited their customers, employees and the broader community in their attempt to maximise shareholder value and returns.

Employees, especially younger employees, are also being more discriminatory in selecting what sort of company or government they want to work for, and customers are similarly becoming more selective as to what products and services they buy, and from whom.

Unfortunately, governments have been slow to respond to these issues, responding more to the wishes and pressures of narrow special interests while playing down or ignoring community concerns and our national interest. Take, for example, the environment. It has taken many decades for our governments to accept and respond to the issue of pollution, but their response is still only piecemeal. There are heavy penalties, even goal, if you dump say asbestos on a vacant lot or if a business pollutes a river, yet there are no consequences for pumping out CO2 from a coal-fired power station, or for emitting methane gas from a landfill, or for driving vehicles burning the dirtiest petrol in the OECD. The consequences of which are far more significant.

Indeed, if you listened to much of what was said in the recent election campaign, the prospects of jobs and growth in regional Queensland are far more important than climate consequences, so much so that even if the private sector won't finance a new coal-fired power plant in North Queensland, even if it can't be insured and even though renewable energy alternatives are much cheaper, it is still OK for the government to commit money to the project.

While the LNP may have pulled off a miracle with this election win, the combined vote of the two major parties fell even further, as voters continued to be increasingly disenchanted with both major parties, who are clearly not listening to their concerns.

Internationally, countries including our neighbouring New Zealand are beginning to recognise the limitations of simply focusing on GDP growth as a measure of performance and national standing.

Clearly, this is a significant challenge for all our governments. But it will take genuine leadership, not just short-term politicking.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader