TONY SMITH. Time to revive the ‘most appalling’ list.

Jun 3, 2019

As a naive teacher of undergraduates I always assumed that research findings about wealth distribution in Australia would be of vital interest to students in any discipline. Understanding the extremes of wealth and poverty and their causes seemed to be essential to understanding individual behaviour and to making collective decisions. Sadly, the trend has always been towards greater social inequality.

I always looked forward to the Rich List produced by the Business Review Weekly in late May. Today with the BRW defunct the Australian Financial Review publishes the list. There are differences in the list, including how much wealth you need to be among Australia’s top 200 plutocrats, the sources of their money and the wider distribution according to gender and ethnic origin. But some things have not changed.

People of power, regardless of source, generally prefer that their positions not be made public. In the case of the rich list however, it seems that those named have no fear that their identification could have negative implications. No doubt, those on the list are flattered to be there, given that wealth accumulation is in most cases, their raison d’etre. Similarly, the voyeurism and sycophancy associated with revelations about wealth have remained constants.

Many of those who value the list see it as a duty to know their betters in order to emulate them. The temptation to lampoon the idea of the list, has not been a popular one since the owner sacked the editor of The Bulletin summarily for publishing a list of Australia’s most appalling people. It seems that many on the list were friends of the magazine’s owner who did not appreciate the joke.

While the sources of wealth among the richest are of some interest, the analysis of the way wealth is distributed is always important reading. In the 1980s, it was staggering for an egalitarian socialist to learn that the wealth of the richest was growing while that held by the poorest in society was falling. Even then, the richest few could outspend the poorest half. Worse still was the fact that the redistribution policies assumed to be the role of government, were failing to address the problem.

The analysis these days is less diligent and left to those with an interest inin criticising the trends. The AFR editorialised that Australia’s richest ‘lack aristocrats, monopolists and old time robber barons’. It seems curious then, that some surnames occur more than once, ‘tech’ moguls are rising to match established media moguls and miners and property developers seem to be the richest of all.

Fortunately the ABC sought comment from alternative sources. It notes that while the incomes of the lowest paid workers will increase by some 3% on 1 July, those on the rich list saw their wealth increase by 20% over the last year, confirming the adage that it takes money to make money. While the 200 richest aggregated some $6.4 bn in 1984 (16% of the nation’s wealth), today’s list have $342 bn (34%).

Christopher Sheil and Frank Stilwell argue that most of the increase in wealth since 2012 has gone to the richest so that 10% people now have as much wealth as the 40% at the other end of the scale. Such comment might of course sound like envy. Ironically perhaps, constructions of images of envy are usually directed at people who own roughly none of the nation’s wealth. Those who shape popular understandings of the forces which hold back Australians with ‘aspirations’ blame those who depend on welfare for their existence. Welfare recipients are easy targets for media and politicians who choose to preach against our supposed but mythical high tax rates. It is a nonsense and disingenuous to focus on those who live in poverty and who lack autonomy while ignoring the state subsidies given to the rich. Those who aspire to emulate the wealthy self-select for greed.

Australian society needs to radically change its ideas of national wealth. A nation’s wealth lies primarily in its children and youth and yet there is some evidence that young people are becoming so disillusioned by politics that many failed to vote in the 2019 election. The major political parties once had divergent ideals about the role of government in redistributing opportunity and pursuing equality. Since Labor had its fingers burned in the recent federal campaign, one fears for its commitment to redistributive policies. The market is no substitute for ethical standards.

Many Australians have been identified as ‘national treasures’ and many more could be regarded as such. Volunteers for example, who assist the homeless, the ill and the hopeless have and share riches which are seldom measured in monetary terms. If they were, governments would be severely embarrassed. Not only do volunteers undertake the work governments should do, but they shame the obscenely rich, much of whose philanthropy amounts to small change and tax concessions. Organisations such as Vinnies and the Sallies exist primarily to assist the victims of the capitalist system which produces the rich list.

The new Labor leader announced that it was time to stop talking about class warfare. The next day, yet another young worker died on a construction site, and the next week, the rich list was published, leaving no doubt that the increase in the fortunes of the rich does not bring opportunity to those further down the food chain. On the contrary. It is time to remind ourselves that Australia can be different and can avoid the inequalities that cause tensions and social conflicts in older societies. Until we get a government which addresses growing inequality, we would do well to revive that ‘most appalling’ list.

Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in parliament, elections and political ethics.

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