So, QANTAS CEO Alan Joyce’s annual salary is now some $24 million dollars. This is over three hundred times the average Australian salary. Other CEOs are also being paid well into the tens of millions of dollars. Meanwhile the wages of the vast majority of Australian workers are flat-lining as the cost of living relentlessly heads upwards.
The growing inequality that this points to ought to be galvanising people into some kind of mass protest movement. But the good old Aussie masses remain mired in complacency. It’s as if everyone has given up. Perhaps people even think that those CEOs are actually entitled to their grotesquely inflated salaries and associated lurks and perks.
Meanwhile, politicians at federal and state levels have been granted eye-watering increases in their salaries and allowances. In the universities, vice chancellors and other senior managers are being paid way out of proportion to the salaries granted to teaching and research staff. Medical specialists are demanding fees that are placing their services out of reach of large numbers of people who are seriously ill, in need of treatment, and in many cases whose lives are at risk because they simply can’t afford that treatment. Lawyers demand fees that make the idea of justice totally risible for far too many aggrieved citizens.
Across the Australian economy we now see a selfish minority class siphoning off the bulk of whatever profits are being made, while the crumbs are left for the majority of workers. The gap between the haves and have-nots is widening by the day. The few who have the money can be kept alive (and even botoxed and face-lifted), educated, and keep out of jail, while increasing numbers have no such luck. Australian society is in grave danger of being torn asunder by this economically poisonous development.
How has it come to this?
An anti-culture of complacency has been confected across Australian society that meshes sickeningly with the ideology of neoliberalism. This anti-culture manipulates public opinion so that people falsely believe that the likes of Alan Joyce, or the vice chancellors, the politicians, the medical specialists, and the legal eagles actually deserve their massive pay packets – that because of their business acumen, stressful work demands, and hard-to-achieve professional qualifications, they are entitled to be paid way in excess of the wages and salaries of ordinary mortals.
Reputable academic researchers dispute the view that the fabulously well-paid are entitled to their good fortune. Unequal societies in which wealth has become dangerously concentrated in the hands of the few at the top of the wealth distribution pyramid, are becoming increasingly dysfunctional. “How is it,” ask Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their excellent book, The Spirit Level: How is it that equality makes societies stronger, “that we have so much mental and emotional suffering despite levels of wealth and comfort unprecedented in human history?” They marshal compelling evidence to show that the patterns of inequality now entrenched in the developed world are not only unjust, but destructive of social cohesion, mental health, high productivity, and general wellbeing.
The ultimate irony is this inequality characterising all the contemporary capitalist societies is driving those societies to the edge of a socio-economic precipice. In his disturbingly prescient book, How Will Capitalism End? Wolfgang Streeck notes: “There is a widespread sense today that capitalism is in critical condition. Looking back, the crash of 2008 was only the latest in a long sequence of political and economic disorders that began with the end of post-war prosperity in the mid 1970s.”
The opiate of Australian complacency has befuddled so many policy-makers’ minds that the country’s leadership is sleep-walking into a weakening economy and an increasingly vulnerable and conflicted society. The dominant ideological perspective remains that, given time, somehow, anyhow, the free market, devoid of all regulatory oversight, will fix everything up. But time is running out. Moreover, the deregulated chickens are coming noisily home to roost. As the Royal Commissions into the financial sector and the aged care sector are demonstrating, with devastating clarity, deregulation has been the problem all along.
What is to be done?
It’s time to regulate the salaries of CEOs. Their pay must be as proportionate to their companies’ turnovers as their workers – those who do the hard yards to create the cash flows and profits over which senior managers and shareholders currently have a totally unjust and ultimately counterproductive monopoly. Neoliberal policies have handed this monopoly to them with little regard for the wealth-makers – the workers – whose wages and salaries have remained ridiculously static for far too long.
Let’s face it: Alan Joyce’s 24 million dollar payment for his service to QANTAS is obscene. So too are the multi-million dollar salaries being awarded to other leading CEOs across the Australian economy. They are only able to get away with this kind of highway robbery because their workers and their unions are living in a cloud of complacency which ultimately means they are collaborating with the injustice and economic madness that hands the Joyces of this world such absurdly high rewards. QANTAS workers would have every justification to down tools until they are awarded wages and salaries substantially in excess of what they currently receive. And they should strike until their CEO’s salary is cute back to at least one twentieth of what it is currently.
Allan Patience is a Melbourne-based academic.