The growing number of people sleeping rough on the streets of our cities has alerted many Australians to the fact that Australia is no longer the egalitarian society we once were, and that, as in other western democracies, inequality is on the rise.
A report shortly to be released from a high level Roundtable of experts held in Parliament House in June, argues that, like several other English-speaking democracies, the current level of inequality in Australia is serious and demands a new, vigorous and uncompromising campaign to engage all Australians in a re-conception of the kind of country we want and the values that should drive future public policy.
A discussion paper “Gini out of the bottle,” which presented the evidence that “the income share of the top 10% of Australians is growing at the expense of everyone else” helped to set the scene for the Roundtable discussion. There was recognition by Roundtable participants that current policies are profoundly unfair to Australians on the lower rungs of the economic ladder and that current economic policies threaten the future of humans and the planet.
Participants in the Roundtable argued that the problem is one of justice and human rights, and that our inevitable move towards becoming a republic should be accompanied by a Charter of Rights, developed around shared national values. There was firm consensus that in a changing world, every person must have basic entitlements to food, clothing, shelter, health and education from birth, and that the vast majority of Australians would support a return to the notion of a “living wage”.
They said we must also challenge the notion that growth in the Gross Domestic Product is an adequate or appropriate measure of progress and that we must also devise an economy that commits to rapidly reducing the nation’s carbon emissions and halt the destruction of the ecosystems that support all life.
This week the Australian Government Productivity Commission released a research paper entitled “Rising Inequality? A stocktake of the evidence.” Perhaps unsurprisingly the report presents a relatively unperturbed view of what is happening in Australia, unlike the June Roundtable, which had included two former Labor Deputy Prime Ministers, Brian Howe and Wayne Swan and The Leader of The Greens. No one from the Liberal Party had participated, despite some having been invited.
The Productivity Commission Report states that over nearly 3 decades, inequality has risen slightly in Australia. It says that sustained growth has delivered significantly improved living standards for the average Australian in every income decile and that Australia’s progressive tax and highly targeted transfer (security) system substantially reduces inequality. It states that economic mobility is high in Australia with almost everyone moving across the income distribution over the course of their lives. But the report recognizes that some Australians are experiencing entrenched economic disadvantage.
All of this coincides with the launch at The Canberra Writers Festival this week of an important book by Braidwood author Geoff Davies, a distinguished geoscientist who has turned his attention for twenty years to the study of Economics and its role in society. The book, “Desperately seeking the Fair Go” argues that the time window is very short for us to embark on a programme of transformation in the way Australians think and act in relation to the economy and the planet. Davies argues that we are currently being duped by our political leaders on both sides of the political divide, into working with an economic model that is not remotely fit for the purpose it needs to serve.
Davies book and the recent release of the vision statement “Australia Remade: Creating the best version of Us” by a group of NGO’s, give me hope that Australia could still avoid the disasters that now beset America and the UK whose inequality is greater than ours. But that will only happen if we take the epidemic of homelessness as a sign that citizens must now get active and take control of our democracy away from the corporate elites who currently control it.
Bob Douglas is a retired public health academic and a Director of Australia21 who chaired the roundtable referred to in this article on behalf of Austrlaia21 and The Australia Institute.