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Mind the gap: ethos of a fair go gone

17 August 2013 1,318 views No Comment

Soon after his book was published, Andrew Leigh – a former economics professor at the Australian National University, and federal Labor MP for the ACT seat of Fraser since August 2010 – was dropped from Kevin Rudd’s frontbench. Previously parliamentary secretary to prime minister Julia Gillard, Leigh is a prolific author, which, on the face of it, seems hard to reconcile with being a fully engaged member of Federal Parliament.

Subtitled ‘The Story of Inequality in Australia’, in some ways ‘Battlers and Billionaires’ is a peculiar book. Written with the aid of three research assistants, Leigh’s latest, rather dense book has 418 endnotes comprising 44 pages, an index of 11 pages, and four pages of acknowledgments. This leaves a mere 151 pages as text.

And if it’s not what Gerard Henderson of the Sydney Institute calls ”academic sludge”, then the prose style of ‘Battlers and Billionaires’ and its accompanying figures and tables make far from easy reading.
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In his 1845 novel ‘Sybil’, Benjamin Disraeli, who was twice British prime minister – in 1868 and from 1874 to 1880 – unforgettably described the affluent and the disadvantaged in England as being ”two nations”, between whom ”there is no intercourse and no sympathy, who are … ignorant of each other’s habits and thoughts and feelings”. They seemed, he wrote, to be ”dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets, who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws”.

At the start of European occupation, Australia was a penal colony (with prisons inside prisons such as Moreton Bay, Norfolk Island, and Cockatoo Island) where utter inequality was the prime human and social reality. Indeed, the primary division in our early years was between His Majesty’s Government overseers and prisoners, many from Ireland. Far worse was the subservient condition of our original inhabitants, despite frequent resistance to European occupation.

As Leigh documents, Australian economic inequality rose through the 19th century. After a marked fall from the 1920s to the ’70s, inequality has continued to rise exponentially – so that, if not culturally then economically at least, we are starting to resemble Disraeli’s ”two nations”.

Certainly, while the gap between rich and poor is growing, the impact of poverty on Australian society is continuing to make its deleterious mark. As Leigh explains, for the past 30 years Australia has become more unequal. Hence the income share of our top 1 per cent of citizens has doubled, while that of our top 0.1 per cent has tripled.

The situation, in which federal Labor governments have made few, if any, attempts to tackle the problem of increasing economic equality, is in stark contrast with Labor under prime minister John Curtin, who in 1942 told Parliament: ”There will have to be fairer distribution of wealth.”

To achieve this goal, various measures were put in place. As Leigh explains, during wartime ”prices and rents were controlled so that workers did not see their costs escalating while their wages were frozen. Ration cards were introduced for basic foodstuffs and clothing.” Though ‘Battlers and Billionaires’ is occasionally opaque, it is hard to disagree with Leigh’s conclusion that without an active egalitarian spirit in Australia, there is far less chance that economic equality can be reduced.

He gives some fascinating facts. Between 1939 and 1951, in its desire to directly create jobs, the Australian government quadrupled the size of the federal public service. Australia has also seen a rapid rise in cosmetic surgery, driven ”by the desire to meet a rising social standard”. The book claims that by the end of 2010, one in 20 Australians had had at least one procedure. The reliability of these figures is hard to determine, but it is noteworthy that from 2006-07 to 2008-09, the number of private hospitals offering plastic surgery in Australia increased by 14 per cent.

‘Battlers and Billionaires’ has some unexplained omissions. In a table headed ”Rising Inequality in Colonial Land Grants” – the arrival in NSW of Governor Arthur Phillip in 1788 to the departure of Lachlan Macquarie in 1821 – there is no mention of Governor William Bligh, removed from office on January 26, 1808 in the ”Rum Rebellion”.

Professor Ross Fitzgerald’s latest book is ‘My Name Is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’.

BATTLERS AND BILLIONAIRES

Andrew Leigh

Redback, 210pp, $19.99

Sydney Morning Herald, August 17-18, 2013 SPECTRUM p 33