Australian myth: egalitarianism and chancers

Towards the end of the year’s first episode of Q&A a few weeks back, some time was set aside for some statutory patriotic bonhomie. Perhaps it was a nod and a wink to the extraordinary recent suggestion by the Prime Minister on 2GB that the ABC sometimes “appears to take everyone’s side but our own”. Perhaps it was a hat tip to Australia Day, that fleeting carnival of barbecued meat, flags-as-capes and culture war that briefly flickered in and out of reality again at the end of January, thankfully just in time (as always) to avoid any serious national debate. In any case, after almost an hour, with Barnaby Joyce’s fluster beginning to dissipate, the fluffy topic at the program’s close provided the evening’s most evocative comments.

Nick Chapman asked:

…is being a great Australian any different to being a great citizen of any other country in the world?

The question of course turned instantly into a bar room discussion about Australian values, skewed by recent news. Comedian Akmal, alluding to our continuing toxic debate on immigration and asylum seekers, questioned whether the Aussie notion of the “fair go” only applied to some people:

Is it a fair go for Australian citizens or is it a fair go for Anglo Australians? Because unless these values extend to all of humanity, then they are not really values at all, they just – it’s a form of tribalism and I think what’s happening to the asylum seekers at the moment and the fact that most of us are not outraged by what’s going on is really sad.

Nick Cater dug out a couple of cliches (“lucky country”, “we make our own luck”) before suggesting that the values that Australia holds dear are basically the same as the values that other countries hold dear. I think this underestimates the uniqueness of the Australian “fair go” ethos, or at least the popular perception of that ethos. Barnaby waxed lyrical about flying into Sydney (strewth, would you look at that!) and the joys of going for a Malaysian curry and a few “sherbets”, as perhaps only Barnaby can do. Ray Martin offered up an anecdote about a skateboarding kid and some surfers that fell flat, but also let his unhinged lefty paternalist streak out of the closet:

That’s what being an Australian is and I don’t know whether we – often we bicker over these little things. We shouldn’t even argue about this Barnaby. We should be sorting out the farm problem because we are very rich and we are very generous and we are capable to look after these people. That’s what being Australian is.

Rich, generous and capable of looking after people. I don’t remember much about Martin-era A Current Affair, but you will not observe that sort of generosity of sentiment on commercial current affairs programs these days.

Tanya Plibersek, characteristically, provided the most moving and incisive anecdote:

My friend Tom Uren, who was a prisoner of war, talks about the different survival rates between the Australian prisoners of war and the British prisoners of war and one of the reasons he gives is that the Australians shared what they had and looked after each other. They didn’t revert to the hierarchical structures that the British officers and enlisted men stuck to in the prisoners of war camp. And I always think – and he talks about Weary Dunlop’s influence on Australians working in that way, cooperatively, together, looking after each other, the strong looking after the weak, the healthy looking after the sick and if I wanted to point to one value that I think of as not uniquely Australian but intrinsically Australian and so precious, it is that attachment to egalitarianism.

Cassandra Goldie from ACOSS followed Tanya, making a slightly rambling case for the least likely welfare reform imaginable under an Abbott Government, an increase to unemployment benefits. Its a tough gig right now, at ACOSS. She also questioned the idea that Australia really is the egalitarian sort of place we like to think it is:

Yeah. I mean, look, I think that’s how we would like to see ourselves but I think we are at a bit of a crossroads, may I say, in whether or not we are prepared to practise what we espouse we have.

The popular view that we Australians have of ourselves and our values is all wrapped up in mateship, toughness and the so-called “fair go”: the idea that all Australians get an opportunity to make something of themselves. Plibersek’s suggestion that egalitarianism lies at the core of these values warmed the cockles of my heart, but it is utterly fanciful. It is a romanticised view of how the left and sympathisers with Labor and the Greens would like Australia to be. Do the strong look after the weak in Australia? Largely only to the extent that the ATO forces them to, through much-maligned (by hard-working Australians who have made their own luck, of course…) progressive taxation. The strong in our country are mostly strong because they have ridden their luck, focusing their energies on looking after themselves first and foremost, and with some worthy exceptions, they generally do not concern themselves with the travails of “the weak”. Do the healthy look after the sick? Medicare has played a critical role in this over decades, and on balance Australia is surely one of the best places on Earth to get sick in. That’s not to say that – family and friends excepted – if and when you get sick and old the generosity of everyday Australians all around you is going to buffet your journey. Ross Gittins hit the nail on the head in a column last year: individually and collectively, Australians today are more overtly materialistic than perhaps was the case in decades past, and as a result our much lauded egalitarian credentials are in truth, little more than a façade.

If there is a national personae that Australia truly embraces, it is something more like that of the “chancer”: we celebrate the underdogs who work hard, take a few risks and somehow manage to “strike it rich” or do well for themselves as a result. We like a knockabout who climbs or lucks their way above “their station”. Culturally, we have a strong Darwinist streak. Australians are reluctant to begrudge the success of those who have gambled in life and won, but happy to drop the would-be “chancers” who fail like a ton of bricks. They are just failures: they should have done better somehow. We have a tendency not to understand the difficulties of those who won’t or can’t work as effectively as the best of us; perhaps it is easier to just blame the individual. Don’t have a good enough job? Work hard and get a better one. Don’t have enough money to feed the family? You should have worked harder or smarter, you should have made better choices, like I did. Are you on welfare? You must be a bludger.

This sort of mindset wilfully ignores the myriad of uncontrollable human factors that can shape the direction of a person’s life, from your genetic predisposition, through to where you grow up, who your parents are, what sort of relatives you have, what sort of friends you make, and so on. Many in Aboriginal Australia and in the sprawling suburbs of our metropolitan areas suffer from this form of rank stigmatisation. It is not just that we are all starting the race at different times: we are all running completely different races. The “level playing field” of opportunity in Australia that we pat ourselves on the back about annually may be more level than that offered by almost all other countries, but let’s not forget that it still slopes at least as viciously as that suburban street you hurtled down on your bike, back when you were growing up.

The “chancers” who play and win in life live large as heroes in our national consciousness; unfortunately for progressives, we don’t spend much time as a nation thinking about just how stacked the odds are in favour of some of them. In Australia, we are more than happy to let the victors get their spoils and to whine about subsidising those who are struggling to do so.

Inequality: what price a banker?

As a public policy issue of note in mainstream Australian politics, inequality has exited (stage right!) in recent years. It remains one of those elephants in the room that is seemingly too big, too controversial, and just plain too difficult to tackle head on.

Consider the hectic Rudd and Gillard years since 2007. Amidst a period of uncomfortable vacillation on climate change, the cutthroat machinations surrounding the leadership of Federal Labor, and of course the formation of Julia Gillard’s minority government, I guess we really shouldn’t be that surprised that inequality has not figured prominently on Labor’s agenda-setting radar. It’s obviously not an issue that Abbott’s retrograde Coalition are concerned by, and while its probably fair to conclude that Labor is concerned about it, Team Gillard are still wrestling with much of the same sack of policy vipers that they were when they were called Team Rudd earlier this year.

Perhaps it is a function of the Con-Dem(n) age of austerity here in the UK or the sharp contrast that exists between “the City” and the rest of the economy, but inequality is getting some serious mileage in the British media at the moment. In Britain, inequality even has a public visage; a target. In case you didn’t know, inequality personified is a middle-aged, preferably portly (but jackal-like will suffice) man in a business suit, who works in management or in the financial sector in London. We might well call him “Inequality Man”. He is just the sort of person who not only has a football star salary, but can credit the loosely regulated, now part-nationalised banking sector for the lion’s share of his wealth. It is this “cross-over” that makes “Inequality Man” such a potentially effective pawn in the fight against economic unfairness.

Those unfortunate people who were hit hard by the GFC, or have a friend or a family member who was, may not care too much about inequality, but it’s a sure bet they can see the economic justice inherent in the sorts of salaries that management and financial sector professionals are still pulling. Danny Dorling, Professor of Human Geography at Sheffield University, provided a timely reminder in The Observer a week ago of just how the average salaries of different professions has changed in the UK between 1980 and 2009. The evidence suggests that the pie is getting bigger, with (for example) the average salaries of cleaners rising from £4,503 in 1980 to £31,807 in 2010 (~706% increase), nurses from £5,044 to £29,431 (~583% increase), and teachers from £6,505 to £35,121 (~539% increase). Most people who would consider themselves “of the left” would contend that these salaries should be higher still, but when it comes to inequality, the real problem is the comparative increase in salary for corporate executives. The average salary of a FTSE 100 CEO is £4.9 million, up from £85,000 in 1980, which represents a somewhat extraordinary 5765% increase.

Dorling, also author of Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists, asks the obvious question about value for money for society:

Why should an excellent brain surgeon receive “only” 0.5% of a top banker’s income? At the peak of excess a top banking boss can receive £40 million in renumeration. 0.5% of that income is a salary of £200,000 a year, which is just about the possible range of top surgeons’ salaries. You can have 200 excellent brain surgeons, and quite a few more average ones, all for the cost of a single man in a suit running a large bank in Britain.

It remains to be seen whether or not Labour leader Ed Miliband will take the bait on this issue – but its hard to believe that the majority of people would not agree that some form of action is warranted. To what extent can we say the same about the situation in Australia?

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.