ALLAN PATIENCE: Fragmenting Australia

Jun 28, 2018

CEDA (the Committee for Economic Development of Australia) has recently published a report (Community Pulse 2018: The Economic Disconnect) that shows that “there is a disconnect between Australia’s strong economic record and the community’s sense of having shared in the growth” (p. 5).  The report adds to others that show that today a majority of Australians is deeply distrustful of politicians and political parties; that there is disillusionment (particularly among young people) with the ideals of democracy; and that socio-inequality is increasing in Australia today. It is bizarre that the political class seems oblivious to the very serious problems inherent in these findings.

 A couple of weeks ago, on the ABC’s Insiders program, a senior newspaper editor airily dismissed as “whingers” people complaining about the current flat-lining of wages and associated increases in the cost of living. They should be grateful, he opined, that the economy is growing so well. They must be patient for the trickle down effect to settle in. And, he implied, they should be grateful to the policy makers and corporate leaders who are working so hard to generate the wealth of this country from which all will ultimately benefit.

The attitude of this fellow epitomizes the arrogant dismissiveness towards those they are meant to be serving by the powers-that-be in political, business and media circles in this country today. While politicians, CEOs and corporate shareholders are amassing unprecedented wealth, the CEDA survey is further evidence that the majority of Australian workers and families are not sharing in their easy good fortune.  Many voters are rightly beginning to seriously resent the arrogance of their self-regarding masters.

CEDA has provided summaries of four broad sets of interesting responses to its 2018 survey (pp. 6-7):

  • Who has gained from 26 years of uninterrupted economic growth?
  • 5% of respondents believe they have personally gained a lot.
  • 31% are finding it difficult to live on their current income.
  • 74% believe large corporations have gained a lot.
  • 79% believe the gap between the richest and poorest Australians is unacceptable.
  • What are the top five issues for the kind of Australia in which you want to live?
  • Reliable, low cost basic health services.
  • Reliable low cost essential services.
  • Access to stable and affordable housing.
  • Affordable, high quality, chronic disease services.
  • Reduced violence in homes and communities.
  • Top five ways forward for Australia as a nation
  • High quality and accessible public hospitals.
  • Strong regulation to limit foreign ownership of Australian land and assets.
  • High quality and choice of aged care services.
  • Tough criminal laws and criminal sentences.
  • Top ways forward in the work place
  • 71% would welcome new technology that helped to do their job.
  • 12% are concerned that new technology will replace them.
  • 68% identify conditions in the workplace as very important when looking for a job.

These kinds of statistics begin to make sense as we listen to the evidence being brought to light by the Royal Commission into the financial industries. The revelations about the behavior of the big banks show just how deplorable they are. But we must ask: How is it that the senior managers and CEOs of these institutions allowed it all to happen? What were they thinking? Were they happy to allow – indeed encourage – their minions to impose shonky advice and bogus deals on a naively trusting public. In many of the cases appearing before the Commission the plight of those who have suffered from these seemingly criminal activities is heartbreaking.

We can ask similar questions of the CEOs and managers of the electricity retailers across the country. The opaquely complex “deals” being offered to customers are designed to bamboozle, confuse and bewilder people into signing up as their customers. (I recently changed my energy provider, only to have the original provider on the phone offering me a 45% discount on all future bills. Why could this not have happened right from the outset?)

Similar problems are now besetting the health insurance industry – an industry that should exist to act compassionately helping people through their various medical treatments instead of causing even greater worry to them. And now we are finding that medical specialists are ripping off patients because they are at liberty to charge whatever they like. If ever any group should be immediately nationalized it is specialist surgeons – just as a start!

And can we say that justice is available to all in this country when we know that senior counsel and lawyers are pricing themselves way above what folk on average incomes can pay? No: justice is only for those who can pay. That this happening in contemporary Australia is patently absurd.

The point is that something is rotting at the senior levels of leadership and management in this country – in politics, business, in the health services, even in the churches. The actions of so many of the country’s leaders at all levels suggest they are ethically challenged, that they lack empathy, that they care little about providing excellent service, that they are totally in it for themselves – and the devil can take the hindmost. Many of them are shysters.

They will be very foolish indeed if they fail to heed the warnings contained within the latest CEDA report. Their lofty detachment from the lives of ordinary people who are struggling to make ends meet is extraordinary and unconscionable. People will not endure this for much longer and our society will begin to fragment. The appalling arrogance of the senior editor who labelled people with legitimate complaints about their low wage levels as “whingers” indicates that he is unfit to be in the position he now holds. This people of this country deserve far better than that.

Dr Allan Patience is a Melbourne-based academic.

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