Australia has changed enormously since Bob Hawke came to power in 1983, to a nation few can match in terms of wealth and health. The statistics charting progress across election years tell an interesting story, writes Matt Wade.

Numbers can paint a vivid picture of how a nation has changed.

When Bob Hawke won office in 1983, there were 15 million Australians and the federal budget was worth $57 billion. Tony Abbott’s Australia has about 50 per cent more people and federal spending is approaching $400 billion a year.

The three decades that separate prime ministers Hawke and Abbott have been an economic success story. Few nations in 2013 can match Australia’s statistics on wealth, health and education. Australia is at the vanguard of human development.


Longevity is one indicator of this prosperity. Australians’ life expectancy at birth has reached 82 years,  surpassed only by citizens of Japan, Hong Kong and Switzerland.

Male life expectancy has  risen from 72  in 1983 to almost 80.

Overseas travel is another signifier of Australia’s growing affluence. In 1983-84, about 750,000 Australians went overseas on holidays.  Last financial year that  figure was nearly 5 million.

Landmark economic reforms have underpinned these  statistics. The floating of the dollar, 30 years ago next month, was emblematic of policy changes that recast Australia as an open trading nation.

Reserve Bank Governor Glenn Stevens said in a speech on Thursday the float was ‘‘one of most profound economic policy decisions in Australia’s modern history’’.

Releasing the exchange rate from government control was followed by tariff reductions, deregulation of the labour market, reforms to the banking sector and formal independence for the Reserve Bank.

Since 1983, the dollar has ranged from below US50¢ and above $US1.10, but its float and other market-oriented reforms have made the economy more resilient to global shocks. Australia has suffered only one recession in the three decades.

The 30th anniversary of the dollar’s float has triggered calls for more reforms to boost Australia’s competitiveness.

Economist Ross Garnaut, an adviser to  Hawke between 1983 and 1985, says the reform period between 1983 and 2000 has given way to a ‘‘great complacency’’ as the Asia-fuelled mining boom pumped billions into the economy.

In a new book, Dog Days, he argues Australia must recapture its reformist zeal or face rising unemployment and lower living standards. ‘‘We’re set up for a really nasty time unless we go back to the reform era,’’ he says.

Numbers reveal subtle shifts in the way we live compared with 30 years ago. When Hawke was  prime minister, the biggest item of weekly household spending was food. That’s now been replaced by housing costs, such as mortgage payments and rents, as a result of a rapid increase in property prices. The Reserve Bank estimates that the average house price rose from 2.5 times the average disposable household income in 1985 to 4.5 times that income in 2012.

Families spend more on recreation, medical care and household services than they did 30 years ago, but a smaller proportion of household income is devoted to clothing, alcohol, tobacco and furnishings.

The composition of households has also changed. Adelaide University demographer Professor Graeme Hugo says Australia now has more diverse family structures than it did 30 years ago, including a much larger proportion of blended families and same-sex couples.

In the early 1980s, about one-quarter of households were occupied by only one or two people. Now, it’s more than half. Even so, the average Australian house is far bigger than it was in 1983.

In 1983, the baby boomers were entering their prime, which meant a relatively young population, but rapid growth in older age cohorts, especially those 65 and above, has altered Australia’s age structure.

The baby boomers are now leaving the workforce and the ageing of the population has now emerged as a key national challenge.

‘‘We’re moving to a situation where the number of people entering the workforce  will be less than those moving out,’’ says Hugo.

The number of women workers has more than doubled from 2.3 million to 5.3 million since 1983 and the female workforce participation rate has risen from 45 per cent to almost 60 per cent. The ratio of female employment to the total female population is 11 percentage points lower than for men, but when Hawke came to power, that gap was nearly 30 percentage points.

More than three-quarters of Australian employees now work in the services sector, up from about two-thirds in the early 1980s.  Many occupations  unheard of in the early 1980s are now commonplace.

Last year, Bill Shorten, then workplace relations minister, pointed out there are now 86,000 registered personal trainers and only 3000 shearers. The share of manufacturing workers has fallen from about one in five workers in the early 1980s to less than one in 10.

Hugo says migration has been a defining feature of Australia’s story  during the past three decades.

‘‘The demography of few countries has been as strongly affected by international migration as Australia. Net migration on average has contributed around half of Australia’s population growth over the last 30 years.’’

In the early 1980s, the transformative era of Asian migration had only just begun, with the arrival of refugees from  Indochina. Since then, Australia has experienced a surge in migrants from  south-east Asia, China and India, as well as from the Middle East and Africa. The 1981 census found 20.6 per cent of the population was born overseas, but that had risen to 26.1 per cent by 2011.

There has also been an explosion in the number of foreigners who stay temporarily in Australia as students and short-term workers.

‘‘At any one time now, there are 1 million people in Australia temporarily,’’ says Hugo.

It’s been a gripping national journey from Hawke to Abbott. Just look at the numbers.