Members of the Australian Parliament are rich. All of them – from the $200m Prime Minister down to the backbencher earning $203 020 a year and regardless of political affiliation – are in the top 0.5% of the richest people in the world. Although Senator Lucy Gichuhi believes her annual income is “not a lot of money” it’s still four times Australia’s median salary ($55 063) – which means that 50% of Australian adults live off less than a quarter of the Senator’s earnings. She’s not doing it tough.
Each of them is rich, privileged and powerful and whether they’re owners of multiple investment properties, choose to give their salary to charity or reside in a rental with a dozen cats has minimal importance. They’re all wealthy enough to be wearing an “upper” uniform in a class war.
The true point of difference between one politician and another isn’t the scale of their wealth and privilege, it’s how, and on behalf of whom, they choose to exercise it. Is their personal aspiration to add safety, dignity and prosperity to the people who lack such luxuries? Or do they exert their influence to maintain and advance the advantages of those who – like them – are already well ahead of the average Australian, let alone those at the bottom of the wealth and power spectrum? Do they fight for improvements to the lives of those who need it most or is their energy weighted towards the benefit of those in their own income bracket and above?
This is a far more interesting comparison than the investment portfolios of politicians from different parties.
On one hand, there are wealthy politicians whose priorities have included cutting penalty rates, removing the rights and bargaining power of workers, reducing investment in schools and hospitals, limiting the advocacy voice of charities, cracking down on unemployed workers, rejecting the Uluru Statement from the Heart, attacking the public broadcaster, reducing international aid to the lowest level in Australian history and insisting Australians should work until the age of 70 – while at the same time striving to reform the tax system in a way that will most significantly benefit the wealthiest Australians, big business and foreign multinationals.
That is, some wealthy politicians use their power and privilege to make life harder for those at the bottom and easier for those at the top.
On the other hand, there are wealthy politicians who make it their business to fight for saving penalty rates and to increase the minimum wage, build the power of workers to bargain for fair wages and conditions, reform negative gearing, achieve a Treaty with Australia’s First Nations and increase funding to schools, hospital, community legal centres and family and domestic violence services. There are some rich politicians who, although they would personally benefit from a less progressive tax system, would prefer the protect government revenue for use on services that benefit the most vulnerable Australians including better mental health care, affordable housing solutions, disability support services and ensuring Australia’s ageing population can live with health and dignity.
That is, other wealthy politicians use their power and privilege to make life easier for those at the bottom, recognising that those at the top in Australia have already got it pretty bloody good.
It is not the size of our Members’ affluence that matters. It’s what they do with it. On a socio-demographic scale, they all live at the top end of town – but some of them choose to use their privilege for the sake of those with less. They see inequality as a problem, evidence that society is not working as it should and believe that the economy exists as a means to increase the common good, not to concentrate wealth and power in the pockets of the few. They may live in the top end of town but they’re driven by a vision of reducing social disparity and removing the impediments to universal flourishing.
Others use their privilege on behalf of the already-wealthy, seeing vulnerable people as a burden and believe workers exist primarily to increase shareholder profits. They not only live in the top end of town, their driving motivation is to build it higher and add a gate to keep the riffraff out.
There wouldn’t be many inches between the Government and Opposition in a “who has the biggest privilege” competition. But when you consider on whose behalf that privilege is exercised, our Federal Members are poles apart.
Median earnings for Australia $55, 063
Brad Chilcott is the Founder and Chair of Welcome to Australia