Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Justice the yardstick, not equality

By Noel Preston - posted Monday, 15 July 2002

Equality is seen as a cornerstone of Australian society. In fact the egalitarian attitude is probably more sacrosanct than the Hills hoist. But is the sacred cow of a level playing field for all people regardless of colour, creed or race actually the best way to make people equal? I argue not. In fact, I argue further that justified discrimination is needed in some situations to actually bring about equality for all.

The Pauline Hanson heresy strongly emphasises the notion that all Australians should be treated equally and special treatment should not be given to minorities such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. But to treat such groups in our society as equal ignores blatant situations of inequality and perpetuates that inequality.

A simplistic approach to equality fails to understand that equality must be delivered with justice if it is to be a reality for some in our society. Aristotle puts it very succinctly when he says "There is nothing so unequal as the equal treatment of unequals".


Disadvantaged people do in fact need some positive discrimination if they are to become equal within society. A positive discrimination is needed that takes advantage of policies of equal opportunities and favours unequally some people to make all more equal.

In the sphere of education it is particularly crucial that policies are developed to give a fair start to those who have not done too well in the lottery of life’s chances. Health care is another area that needs special attention to ensure the current push towards private sector health provision does not exclude some groups in our society from receiving the best possible health care. A centrepiece of public policy must be the maintenance of a high standard in both the public health and the public education sector.

There are other sectors where projects of positive discrimination are warranted. Affirmative action for women in the workplace and for better Aboriginal employment are two other areas where positive discrimination is justified.

A fair tax system is another area. One of the arguments against the GST has been that it is a regressive tax in the way it affects the disadvantaged. It is a tax in which the affluent pay at the same rate as the poor. Fine tuning a fair tax system is a complex task but our Commonwealth has taken a step backwards through adopting the principle that all people regardless of wealth should pay equal amounts of tax through the GST.

One of the reasons we don’t have food on the GST list is that some people won the argument based on social justice not equality. Even with the forced modifications to move towards equality this form of taxation is a step away from meeting the social justice agenda.

Ensuring true equality, however, means more than formulating policy and creating benchmarks. The standards, ideals and frameworks that are created need to be worked on and implemented in a real and tangible way. In tandem with creating social policy there must also be an auditing and assessment process to ensure it is implemented.


Central to any debate on ensuring a socially just Australia is the question of how to measure justice in society. Part of this debate is the question of the poverty line as a measure of fiscal inequality.

Last year The Smith Family commissioned a report from the University of Canberra's Centre for Social and Economic Modelling which reviewed the concept of a poverty line. The report sparked a debate about using the poverty line as a true assessment of equality and justice.

In assessing how many Australians live in poverty the report measured the gap between rich and poor. The intervention of the conservative Centre for Independent Studies into this discussion resulted in debate about the usefulness of poverty lines in measuring poverty and for setting targets for social security.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. 2
  4. All

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Dr Noel Preston is Adjunct Professor in the Griffith University Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance. He is the author of Understanding Ethics (20O1, Federation Press, Sydney), and several texts on public sector ethics. His web page can be found here.

Noel Preston’s recent book is Beyond the Boundary: a memoir exploring ethics, politics and spirituality (Zeus Publications).

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Noel Preston
Related Links
Centre for Social Justice
Fair Queensland
Queensland Council of Social Services
Photo of Noel Preston
Article Tools
Comment Comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy