Australian Values for new citizens

Last month the acting Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs, Alan Tudge announced that from November, there will be an updated Australian Citizenship Test which for the first time will include a section on Australian values.

Credit – Unsplash

That section seems very similar to the “Australian Values Statement” which the Department of Home Affairs has been espousing since 2013:  respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual, freedom of religion, commitment to the rule of law, Parliamentary democracy, gender equality, egalitarianism, mutual respect, tolerance, fair play and compassion for those in need, and equality of opportunity.  All good stuff.

A new article, “The Unravelling of America” by Canadian anthropologist, Professor Wade Davis makes a compelling case that the US is in serious decline and has been for decades because of its screwed values.  Since 1945, he says, the United States “has lionized the individual at the expense of community and family” and common purpose: “old certainties” have been “shown to be lies, when the promise of a good life for a working family is shattered as factories close and corporate leaders, growing wealthier by the day, ship jobs abroad, the social contract is irrevocably broken.”

A country’s values are extremely important.  Accordingly, there is real benefit in Australia articulating its values, as a first step to walking the talk.

How well do we live up to Mr Tudge’s values?  Do we turn a blind eye to our shortcomings?

My perception is that the US is much deeper in the throes of the values disease than Australia is.  But Australia has also been infected, and we need actively to combat the disease.

The report “Poverty in Australia” by the University of NSW (UNSW) and the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) says that Australia is one of the wealthiest countries in the world per head of population.  The report quoted Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Report 2018 which found Australia to be  the wealthiest country in the world by median wealth; its Global Wealth Report 2019  found Australia to be the world’s second wealthiest country.

Despite these impressive figures, according to the report, even before the pandemic, nearly three and a quarter million Australians were living below the poverty line – that is one adult in eight.  This included nearly three quarters of a million children – one child in six.  We fell nearly exactly in the middle of OECD countries in terms of the percentage of the population living in poverty.  The Nordic countries (Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Sweden) did best.

The report observed that people living in poverty in Australia often miss out on essentials such as food or a roof over their heads.

The number of children living in poverty had gone up considerably in the last decade.  The report attributed that increase in child poverty largely to changes in Australia’s welfare system:

“This is especially true for sole parent families. Parenting Payment, upon which many sole parent families are reliant, was excluded from an increase to pensions in 2009. This was exacerbated by the transfer of 80,000 sole parents from Parenting Payment to the lower Newstart Allowance in 2013, and the freezing of Family Tax Benefits”.

The report pointed out that the rates of Newstart and Youth Allowance have not increased in real terms for 25 years, while the cost of living, especially housing, has risen dramatically; and pointed to Australia’s high rates of unemployment and, increasingly, underemployment.

Michael West Media’s “Tax Dodgers List – 2020” lists the 40 companies which paid the least tax on the most income earned.  The 40 earned about $348 billion.  The top tax rate paid by any of them was less than 4%.  Sixteen of the 40 paid no tax at all.  If the 40 had paid 25% tax – the rate that will soon apply for smaller companies – the tax take would have been nearly $27,000 for each of the three and a quarter million people living below the poverty line.  That would make quite a dent in poverty.  And that’s just for the top 40 tax dodgers.

As West points out, the 2018 list did not even include some of Australia’s biggest tax dodgers such as Google and eBay.  The top 40 included many household names – Glencore, ExxonMobil, Energy Australia, Santos, Citic, Chevron, Virgin, Vodafone, Mitsubishi, GM, Ford, Nissan, Spotless, Healthscope, Graincorp, Foxtel, Mirvac, CSR and Sydney Airports Corporation.

Australian Governments have faffed about for many decades on the pernicious phenomenon of tax dodging.  They have given grants and benefits worth millions of dollars to the dodgers, and continue to do so.

Look at another measure – wealth and income inequality.  Again according to a 2020 report by UNSW and ACOSS, “Inequality in Australia”, inequality for both wealth and income has significantly increased over recent decades, with a bit of a blip for wealth in the Global Financial Crisis.  Based on the latest available figures (from 2017-18) the average income of the top 5% of the population was nine times that of the lowest 20%.  The average wealth of the top 20% of households was almost a hundred times that of the lowest 20%.  The CEO of Rio Tinto, Jean-Sebastien Jacques was penalised $4.9 million in bonuses for the Juukan Gorge atrocity.  That represents 127 years work on the Australian minimum wage and nearly 340 years on JobSeeker.

We are not as unequal as the US and UK, but we are heading that way.

Critics on the right are accustomed, when these points are made, to shriek about “the politics of envy”.  I am envious – for what is being achieved in those Nordic countries – against poverty and for equality.

Patting ourselves on the back about egalitarianism, fair play and compassion for those in need is so much hypocritical poppycock while we turn a blind eye to these iniquities and inequities, and fail to tackle tax dodging head on and with the determination of a top Rugby League front rower..

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Lawyer, formerly senior federal public servant (CEO Constitutional Commission, CEO Law Reform Commission, Department of PM&C, Protective Security Review and first Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security; High Court Associate (1971) ; partner of major law firms. Awarded Premier's Award (2018) and Law Institute of Victoria's President's Award for pro bono work (2005).

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