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Social Inequality in Australia

Written by and copyright© Evan Ling

Australian society was founded on inequality and has no real history of equality between people. The establishment of penal colonies; the squatocracy; the slavery experiment in the Queensland sugar industry; the gold rushes' opportunities for instant wealth or gradual starvation; the maltreatment, murder and misuse of Aboriginal people; the white Australia policy; the thousands of Australians killed in the capitalists' wars; opportunistic, amoral investors and entrepreneurs; British and American cultural imperialism; dishonest and corrupt politicians operating a duopoly of political power - all glossed over by the myth and rhetoric of "the classless society", "egalitarianism", "fellow diggers" and "multiculturalism".

Pat O'Shane, in the article "It's too high a price" in the Herald Sun, Thursday, July 4, 1996, acknowledged that Australian society is far from egalitarian. The "unbridled, all-consuming capitalism" which dominates social and political thinking is anathema and contradictory to equality. It is difficult or impossible to convince capitalists that addressing inequality is profitable.

Recent decisions on immigration numbers are symptomatic of Australian society's characteristic of inequality. Refugees are the potential immigrant source with the greatest need, and the least resources. The quota for refugees is a very small proportion of the total immigrant quota, and the proportion has again been cut. The immigration mix is increasingly shifting to the wealthy business migrant. How is measuring a person's desirability by that person's wealth better than determining desirability by race? There has also been talk of requiring immigrants to pay a $30,000 "bond", further limiting opportunity for those with less wealth.

In the other half of Australia's political duopoly, gender equality is claimed to be addressed by the policy that 35% of their parliamentary seats are to be occupied by women by the year 2002. In the same national executive meeting that sanctioned this policy, Dierdre Tedmanson was moved from the first position on the South Australian Australian Labor Party (ALP) senate ticket to third position. Immediately the opportunity to address the under-representation of women by placing female candidates first and second on a state senate ticket was thrown aside. The clear indication was that the 35% target - not to mention supporting state branch decisions - was to be placed well behind other priorities.

Many say the 35% goal is merely a device to provide the ALP national executive with greater power to interfere in the pre-selection process. The national executive decision stated that the national executive had granted themselves the power to "determine the outcome in any public office preselection progressively between now and the year 2002".

Even if the 35% goal were genuine, it is an obvious question to ask why the goal should not be 51%, given that this is the fraction of the Australian population who are female. Further, why should the unemployed, low-income workers, sole parents, age pensioners, children, people of non-English speaking background, and other disadvantaged and oppressed people not have similar proportional representation?

The ALP national executive's decision, and its approval by the ALP national conference, had three elements. One was an oligarchic grab for power by the national executive. The second was a crude, blatant, and ingloriously failing attempt to entice votes from the largest labelled group of swinging voters. The third, and ultimately most significant, was an implied admission of guilt.

The decision was an admission that the ALP had been involved in creating a society which was so intractably and essentially sexist that the national executive could see no way that Australian society could effectively address this facet of inequality. Thus an artificial 35% goal was established to lay a thin veneer of greater egalitarianism over themselves. If sexism could be removed from Australian society, such a goal would not be necessary, for equal representation would be established by the law of averages.

The argument that this 35% of the ALP's, say, 45% of parliamentary representatives - less than 16% of all parliamentarians - would have sufficient influence to transform Australia into a non- sexist society is unsustainable and simply not worthy of debate.

In the economic area, the average wage for females is only around 65% of the average male wage. Wages may be an inaccurate measure of an individual's or group's standing in the community, but it is worth noting that the Aboriginal people have a median wage which is about 65% of the median wage of Australian people as a whole. Perhaps it could be inferred by this that Australian society's dollar value placed on women in proportion to the value placed on men is roughly equivalent to the value placed on Aboriginal people in proportion to the value placed on other Australians.

Racist attitudes are still strong within Australian society, and particularly when expressed against Aboriginal people. Mick Vievers, at that time tourism spokesman for the National Party in Queensland, was reported in 1994 as expressing his disapproval of the choice by Aboriginal people to live in tourism areas such as the Gold Coast, saying that they should "live by hunting echidna and kangaroo, and by food-gathering" rather than moving to built-up tourist spots in search of work. Racism has profound effects on Aboriginal housing, employment, education, health, land rights and imprisonment.

In addition to racism, the domination of Anglo-American culture, the English language and the capitalist system must greatly aggravate the marginalisation of many people whose life experiences are largely from other cultures and traditions.

Inequality in Australia is also evident in the polarisation of income groups into the very rich and the very poor. Australian society continues to move further away from the egalitarian utopia where "no child will live in poverty". During the 1980's, the share of taxable income received by the lowest 20% of taxable income recipients dropped from 9.1% to 7% of the nation's total taxable income. The top 20% increased their share of the nation's income from 36% to over 40%.

Further aggravating this income inequality is the general trend that Australian income is shifting from wages for labour to profit from capital. Capitalists enjoyed a boom when 10% of the national income shifted from labour to capital in the period 1983-1989.

This income as profit is even more skewed in distribution than income from wages. Financial Market Research found in 1992 that 64% of Australians had no personal financial assets whatsoever, aside from bank current accounts and superannuation. Other research found that the poorer half of Australia' s population have only 1.6% of total wealth. Depending on one's definition of the term, it could be stated that the majority of Australians are "poor" when compared to the mean average wealth of all Australians.

Below even this level of poverty is the growing "underclass". Whether the short term measure of current unemployment goes slightly up or slightly down, the many years of continually high unemployment is creating a large group of people who are the long-term unemployed and their dependants. These people along with other long-term social security recipients constitute a virtually permanent underclass. Poorer again are the homeless and the "illegal" immigrants, the completely disenfranchised and destitute. Perhaps they could be termed "the classless", the harijans or "untouchables" of Australian society.

Perhaps the question we ask should not be "is there social inequality in Australia", but rather "how can Australia's social system possibly be sustained with this level of inequality?" Marxist writers and others have argued that the Australian social system (including the economic and political sub-systems) has been maintained by vested interests created by widespread home ownership. Home purchasing has been strongly encouraged by government and by economic circumstances of the last few decades. The Reserve Bank encourages banks to grant home loans at what are effectively concessional rates of interest.

Recently, circumstances have changed. Marriage and family relationships are now recognised to be less permanent than was once thought. There is less certainty, less cause to establish permanent family homes. The long-term real growth in housing prices seems to be over. A residential property is no longer such a highly regarded investment. The federal government have reacted by encouraging more competitors into the home loan market in order to drive down interest rates.

What will happen in Australia if the polarisation of income and wealth continues? If the average wage earners can no longer afford to be "little capitalists", can no longer see any opportunity let alone advantage in committing themselves to the "great Australian dream" of home ownership? How many people can be added to the underclass and the "sub-welfare class" before they contribute to revolutionary critical mass?

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