As a member of the Labor Party, I have always been passionately committed to egalitarianism - the idea that each person has equal worth; that any limitations on their achievement and their ability to share in society's goods should be systematically broken down. And that this requires public action and investment.
The conservatives embrace - if they do at all- a pallid version of equal opportunity. They think it is enough to let people step up to the mark and do as well as they can no matter what handicaps they start with. They speak from the vantage point of privilege, blind to their own advantages. They fail to understand that promoting equal opportunity actually requires active intervention to minimise disadvantage and ensure that people's life chances are more equal; so that the accident of your birth does not cripple your future.
Most Australians still hold firm to the view that ours is an egalitarian society. While more of us are uneasy about the widening income and wealth gaps we see, many still appear to accept the boast made by our leaders that ours is a nation of equals where the ethic of a "fair go" is the norm governing our private and public relations. But is this really so?
This comfortable assertion is being increasingly challenged. Researchers generally agree that inequality among Australians is increasing and that egalitarianism itself may be under threat as a defining social objective. And they all agree that it matters.
We are a less equal society than we have ever been.
Fred Argy, in his book, Where to from here?, points out that Australia's distinctive form of egalitarianism, which evolved over 70 years, was defined by its advocacy of a strong role for government in advancing human wellbeing.
The historic roots of our egalitarian ethic lie in a pragmatic commitment to sharing the wealth of the country and the benefits of productivity, particularly through the award and wage fixing system - the "wage earners welfare state". One of the features of this "settlement" was a recognition that government could be - and should be- a major player in achieving equality.
I'm aware that inequality has many different faces apart from those captured by aggregate figures on income and wealth distribution. For example, there are substantial inequities in Australians' working lives reflected in lengthening working hours for some and too little work for others, fewer full time jobs, unequal job opportunities, greater job insecurity and increasing numbers of long-term unemployed and marginal and discouraged job seekers.
As well, Australian workers have not received their fair share of the rapid productivity growth of the 90s and the dispersion of income has become more unequal. Earnings have grown much faster for managers and those in professions and trades than for labourers, clerical and service workers. It is an affront to our egalitarian values that CEO and senior management earnings have grown at ten times the rate of award pay rates over the last decade producing a current ratio of 20:1, a figure exceeded only by the United States.
Egalitarian values are also under threat in the welfare system, in the declining progressivity of the tax system and in reduced non-cash benefits which flow from expenditure on health, housing and education.
Education and Equality
There is little dispute that the universal provision of quality education is one of the keys to reducing inequality and enhancing people's opportunities to participate in the economy and the society.
In the first instance, public expenditure on education operates as a so-called non-cash benefit, like services in health and housing, and has an equalising effect on after-tax income distribution. Assistance to families in the form of government-subsidised services increases the income families have to devote to other consumption.
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