Australia Tops OECD Better Life Index, Leading Norway, U.S.

Australia is the world’s happiest nation based on criteria including income, jobs, housing and health, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said.

Australia led Norway and the U.S., the Paris-based group’s Better Life Index showed, when each of 11 categories surveyed in 36 nations is given equal weight.

Life expectancy at birth in Australia is almost 82 years, two years higher than the OECD average, the survey showed. More than 72 percent of people aged 15 to 64 in Australia have a paid job, above the OECD average of 66 percent.

Australia was the only major developed nation to avoid the 2009 worldwide recession and the government is aiming to return its budget to surplus in the fiscal year beginning July 1. A mining investment boom has spurred hiring and driven the unemployment rate below 5 percent, even as an elevated currency hurts manufacturing and tourism.

“Australia performs exceptionally well in measures of well-being, as shown by the fact that it ranks among the top countries in a large number of topics in the Better Life Index,” the OECD said.

As Europe faces years of fiscal austerity, Australia’s budget surplus would make it one of the first developed nations to emerge from an era of red ink caused by the worldwide financial crisis that started in 2008. Even so, the nation’s Labor-led government trails the opposition in opinion polls.

‘Dodged That Bullet’

“We’ve all just lived through the biggest economic meltdown since the Great Depression,” Prime Minister Julia Gillard said in a May 9 interview, when asked why her government has low poll ratings. “While Australia has largely dodged that bullet -- we didn’t have a recession, for example -- it has had an impact on people. We’re a government with a big reform agenda. I’m not surprised there’s some nervousness in the community.”

Australia’s unemployment rate will rise to the highest level since 2009 as industries outside of mining struggle with an elevated currency, the OECD said in its economic outlook released in Paris yesterday.

The nation’s jobless rate will climb to 5.7 percent in 2013 from 5.4 percent this year. That would match a level reached in September 2009 and be higher than the average in the past decade of 5.2 percent.

“Mining expansion will continue, but some other sectors are having to adjust to the high level of the exchange rate and raise their productivity, which can be expected to weigh on the labor market,” the OECD said in the report. “Faster fiscal consolidation will also weigh somewhat on demand.”

Budget Surplus

Gillard’s government plans a A$46 billion ($45 billion) swing to a budget surplus to provide the Reserve Bank of Australia with more scope to lower borrowing costs.

The central bank has cut the benchmark interest rate by a percentage point to 3.75 percent in the past six months to support demand as a 41 percent gain in the currency since 2008 hurts non-resource exporters, tourism and education.

Australia’s unemployment rate fell last month to 4.9 percent, the lowest level since April 2011, from 5.2 percent in March, a government report showed this month. Core inflation slowed to a 13-year low in the first quarter as the currency’s strength contained prices.

“In the absence of inflationary pressures, the accommodating monetary stance which accompanies this budget-tightening should help limit the risk of weakening employment,” the OECD said.

Australia is also one of the world’s safest trade and foreign investment destinations, ranking alongside Canada, Germany, Norway and Sweden, according to an analysis of 131 countries on Dun & Bradstreet Corp’s Global Risk Indicator.

“Solid gross domestic product growth, relative to other developed economies, contributes to Australia’s status as one of the world’s safest trade destinations,” according to the report.