The recent devastating floods have brought out all sorts of emotions. We have seen expressions of great compassion and generosity.  And these are emotions that we seem genuinely to treasure when we see them, whether these be in our fellow citizens or in our leaders. In all the heart-wrenching devastation of lives and property, it is heart-warming to see so many showing their compassion for those who have lost so very much.

The question of compassion is one in which as a health economist I have a particular interest. I have recently sought to make a case that strong, compassionate communities are good for people’s health.

I also argued a few years ago, for example, that countries that were more compassionate treated drug addiction and drug addicts better and, while it was difficult to “prove”, some leading drug experts expressed the view that I was on to something.

One of the difficulties here is how to quantify compassion. Can we find a measure that will allow us to see how compassionate we are as a society compared say to the Swedes or the Americans or the Brits?

Earlier I used just public expenditure as a proportion of total national income and Australia didn’t come out of that well. Across 33 OECD countries, for example in 2008, we came fifth from the bottom on 27.1%. On this indicator, the countries that came out well — perhaps predictably — were the Scandinavians with Denmark at the top with 48.2%.

Another possible measure is public social expenditure and here we do rather badly again.

These are somewhat crude but not silly measures of social compassion. In this context, public expenditure matters. It is difficult to see how we can build a caring society if we rely too heavily on the market. That may be OK for Tim Tams and TVs but for addressing poverty, inequality, Aboriginal disadvantage, mental illness and flood protection, we need public monies.

But I have just come across a paper that has some really worrying stats on Australian compassion. Well not strictly compassion but what is called “generosity” but it is pretty much the same thing. It examines what it calls “the generosity of social insurance”.

What it does is rather neat. It argues that we can use certain public-sector programs to get an estimate of how generous (or in my language compassionate) a country’s welfare state is.

So, for example, we can take unemployment insurance. One measure of that program’s generosity is what proportion of income that replaces. Added to that is the “coverage ratio” i.e. the proportion of the population covered. Multiplying these together gives an index of “generosity” for that program. Clearly the higher the index, the greater the generosity.

The paper then does the same for sick pay and for state pensions. It adds the three indices together and comes up with an overall generosity index.

Not perfect but an interesting exercise.

Now the scary bit. Australia comes bottom of 18 OECD countries! Oh dear, we are the least generous of them all. Even the US, which is often seen as being the land of free enterprise, individualistic and unwilling to provide decent health care for its people (especially its poor), comes out quite a bit above us. According to this index, in comparison, countries such as Sweden and Norway are dripping with compassion.

I think we are a compassionate people — if we are given the chance and all sorts of private acts in the past few days and weeks show that. But we need our governments to recognise that. We need leaders prepared to lead. Many — most? — of us who are well off would be willing to pay more taxes to help the less fortunate.

We do want a compassionate society. We do believe in the fair go.

Julia: stop messing about. Recognise that we Aussies really do have a decent streak in us — we have just shown it. We want a caring community. We cannot get it — and you will not get it — if you continue to pander to our baser selfish interests and instincts.

Tax us more. Build a caring public sector. We want to be the custodians of a decent society. We want to be led to that compassionate society. It will also make us a healthier society. Let’s get on with it.