Arguing for a fairer Australia

Mark Peel, Monash University

Peter Saunders The Poverty Wars: Reconnecting Research with Reality, UNSW Press, 2005 (172 pp). ISBN 0-86840-810-7 (paperback) RRP $29.95.

Hugh Stretton Australia Fair, UNSW Press, 2005 (304 pp). ISBN 0-86840-539-6 (paperback) RRP $39.95.

These aren’t easy days for advocates of fairness and equity. During the last twenty years, governments have overseen, promoted and sometimes celebrated a significant redistribution of resources, jobs and life chances that has consistently favoured some Australians and penalised others. New investments in middle-class assets and advantages have not been matched by compensating investments in the fortunes of less affluent citizens. Policy-makers and politicians have dismantled some of the most significant architecture promoting public health and public wealth, in the interests of increasing competition and efficiency. They have done so with little sense of long-term consequences, and with a shocking ignorance of history. The architects of these changes will not pay the price of their short-sightedness, though the people of the future will.

If you knew any history, you wouldn’t be reducing the stock of public housing. Nor would you dismantle public dental services. You’d have more regard for the preciousness—and fragility—of the twentieth century’s victories in people’s health, literacy, happiness and aspirations. And if you knew any history, you wouldn’t be measuring the nation’s prospects by how comfortable you and the powerful people like you feel. When you are at its pinnacle, and enjoy all of its privileges, any society can look like the best one imaginable. But if you want to know the importance of shelter, health and work, listen to the unhoused, the unwell and the unemployed. They know best what is going wrong, and how to put it right.

Australia is less fair than it was. There’s less money for social mobility, and more for privilege preservation. If you wish to do well in this country, it is more and more important to choose your parents carefully. The poor haven’t got poorer, but they are a lot further behind the rich than they used to be. The schools and hospitals that cater to them are more dilapidated, and their welfare comes with a revitalised suspicion and meanness of spirit. In place of arguments for shared responsibility comes a war on the largely invented problem of ‘welfare fraud’ that should forever shame its instigators and enthusiasts. Citizens are encouraged to believe that governments can’t look after them, that everyone has an agenda, that every argument for change or continuity is just spin and that they must look after themselves and their own.

If there are no losers, there are no victors.

At times, you fear the faintness of arguments that might draw those citizens to different conclusions. Too few talk about the good of the whole, or notice that because very few of us have the means to guard against the frailties we share, we must pool resources to protect and nourish each other. As some powerful and privileged people retreat from the responsibilities that come from sharing a society, they console themselves with the fiction that everyone else is playing the same game. But it’s a game that most people can’t be allowed to win, because exclusion and exclusiveness are part of the reward. If there are no losers, there are no victors.

And who is asking the crucial questions about a society in which more of life’s rewards will flow from the competitive struggle for jobs and resources and wealth? What happens to the young, for example? Who protects the weak? What are the moral and collective responsibilities of people who are advantaged by talent and skill? What are the obligations of those whose wealth and security accrues largely from the luck of inheritance or timing? What do we do with people who aren’t very capable, or who aren’t even interested in doing the things for which we are prepared to pay a decent income, or whose vocation perhaps lies in caring for children and the elderly or being a good parent? Most of all, perhaps, what happens to the losers?

These failures of imagination and fairness lie nearer the top than the bottom of Australian society. If there’s a crisis, it is not a crisis of welfare dependency or inefficiency or alienation. It’s a crisis of compassion. It’s a crisis of obligation, from the lucky to the unlucky, the old to the young, the insider to the outsider, those rich in confidence and chances to those who despair of either.

It might all seem very bleak. For an historian like me, it is less bleak, because the lessons of history concern not inevitable or inexorable outcomes, but the certainty of change and the possibility of forging all kinds of futures. For the fair-minded Australian, two recent books might help further to restore some sense of possibility. One, Hugh Stretton’s Australia Fair, begins with a humane and straightforward injunction—that we should, as far as is possible, leave the world fairer and more equal than we found it—and shows how practical policies might help us achieve that end. The other, Peter Saunders’ The Poverty Wars, attempts to break the debate over poverty out of the number-crunching slough into which it had fallen, by restoring to the conversation a humane concern for the actual sufferings of the poor. Both are important for their ideas and arguments, as well as for the lucid, clear and careful way they develop their ideas and arguments. Both avoid the postured shouting at largely invented foes that has come to characterise some forms of public debate in Australia. They are impassioned but not inflammatory. They argue from evidence rather than taking opportunistic pot shots from fixed and unmovable positions. They offer ideas and practical suggestions and take seriously those alternative arguments that have been advanced in similarly good faith.

If there’s a crisis, it is not a crisis of welfare dependency or inefficiency or alienation.

Both of these books are sensible and judicious. They appeal to citizens’ best instincts, and their appetite for careful and reasonable arguments. Both pursue a form of scholarship in which the public is trusted with ideas and conclusions. Saunders, for instance, assumes his readers will want to properly understand poverty before making decisions about how it might best be tackled. Proper understanding comes from listening, especially to the people who live with poverty’s consequences, so he devotes much of his book to a calm demonstration of what is learned from listening and how those insights might inform academic and policy debates.

It is particularly important, for example, to recognise that income-based snapshots, while useful for some purposes, do not capture very well the events, causes and ill-fortunes that created most people’s poverty in the first place. Because they can’t trace poverty over time, they tend to mask the accumulating nature of people’s disadvantage, and the ways in which seemingly small mishaps can become major disasters for those who live close to the edge. Accordingly, policies to address poverty will be greatly improved if they can identify those common triggers. They will be even more effective if they can sort out the difference between poverty’s symptoms, which might include despair, isolation, alienation and a feeling of helplessness, and poverty’s causes, which are—unsurprisingly for an historian—mostly to do with unemployment, illness and a lack of money.

Hugh Stretton is angry and disappointed, especially by the failures of the major political parties. The first chapter of his book is a stinging rebuke of those who have promised us ‘new freedoms’, and promoted ‘necessary adjustments’ to supposedly ‘inevitable changes’. He is dismayed by their lack of imagination, by their ideological straitjackets, and by the ease with which they allowed the scourge of mass unemployment to resurface in a rich society. Yet his main intention is to show us how to proceed and what to do next. He knows that fairness and justice need explaining, not just defending. Readers want ideas and directions. Accordingly, Stretton’s main concern is with the principles and purposes that might better meet the challenges of the future, and meet them in a way that reduces rather than exacerbates inequalities. In chapters on housing, superannuation, work, child care, natural resources and economic policy, he canvasses a range of ideas, drawing in equal measure upon good academic work in the social sciences, good management principles, and his own experience and expertise in public administration. They should be read, examined, debated and discussed by anyone interested in the future we want to make.

Both of these authors also refuse over-simplification. They don’t deny that policy is often formed from a dilemma, which is almost always a clash between two potentially good things. They recognise the importance of political judgement and balance. They also acknowledge the significance of leadership, well-designed institutions and good governance. As Stretton argues in Australia Fair, the answers to many of the most intractable and difficult problems of the present, as well as the challenges of the futures, lies not in less government but in better government. Those answers will also sometimes mean increasing taxes, something for which, as Stretton shows, solid majorities of polled citizens show a consistent preference if the alternative is continued declines in the quality, accessibility and equitable delivery of public services. It is always important to ask who doesn’t want to pay taxes; I suspect the general rule is that the less effort involved in a fortune’s making, the more fervent the denial of anyone else’s right to a share of it. As Stretton says, ‘most taxes do some good and some harm’ (p. 249); his scheme for taxing and spending strikes a reasonable balance, and makes even more sense when read alongside his ideas for a sensible approach to superannuation and the funding of increased longevity. It’s a matter of choices. Good public regulation produces a better environment for private enterprise. If you wish to nourish and nurture the young, then the middle-aged and the old will have to help pay for it. If you wish to help the poor you will need some sensible restraints upon the rich.

If you wish to help the poor you will need some sensible restraints upon the rich.

In the face of profound changes and challenges, we need practical programs and suggestions. What are we going to do, for instance, about increasing longevity, as well as the increasing time young people spend in education? Both are good things, if we want more and healthier grandparents spoiling grandchildren, and more talented and skilled young adults moving in and changing the way we do science, or manage our technological needs or create great art and performance. But both create dilemmas in policy and funding.

Then there is work: do we really want about 10 per cent of our population to live in a state of perpetual un- and under-employment? Wouldn’t it be better to spend more money creating jobs, and less money exhorting the unemployed to look for jobs that don’t exist, policing their compliance with rules and procedures most people would find impossible to follow, and then punishing them for small infractions?

What about housing? There is great wealth, satisfaction and security in our housing stock, and owner-occupation has been a distinctively Australian means of equalising wealth. But one of the effects of better health care is an increasing life span. Fewer people now die at the time when it was common to transfer wealth to the next generation; in celebrating longevity, we need to take some account of how to handle its consequences for the housing choices of people born after 1970. Why not, as Stretton suggests, try a publicly-financed adventure in price-restrained, rental-purchase, rental and good quality public housing, in which younger and poorer people can choose to trade some of their later capital gains for lower interest rates now?

Or why not, as Saunders suggests, mount a war on poverty, with the intention of winning it, rather than engaging in a war about poverty’s measurement and extent?

From both of these books, it is possible to draw one strong and confident conclusion. We need to explore paths into the future, mindful of the lessons and insights we can draw from the past. But we also need a sense of adventure. As Stretton says, ‘such adventures have to be well-led, technically competent, and democratically desired’. In my view, he is absolutely correct to add that ‘it’s the first two of those that most need repair’ (p. 30). Like Hugh Stretton and Peter Saunders, I think there is an appetite for ideas and arguments. It is not naïve to suggest that persistent and powerful notions of fairness still animate a solid majority of citizens in this country.

I live in a still raw new housing estate on Melbourne’s south-eastern edge. My neighbours, like me, are partly focused on their mortgages and their material aspirations because that’s the way the world is. Like me, many are migrants or the children of migrants. I think most of them, like me, grew up in Labor-voting households. But on the evidence of the local ballot box, a good two-thirds of my neighbourhood voted for the conservatives in the last federal election. An even greater majority seem convinced that their votes and especially their views have little meaning, and that all the political system offers them is point-scoring, pot shots and more or less obvious lies. In that context, I think they probably voted for the devil they knew.

From both of these books, it is possible to draw one strong and confident conclusion.

Are my neighbours lost to ideas and debates about their future? Would they listen to arguments about whether it is easier to create security and safety in splendid isolation, or to do so by sharing the costs and the benefits? Might they respond to a housing plan that would ensure their children have as good a chance of owning a home as they did? Or recognise that because there are vulnerabilities everyone shares, it is sensible to invest in cheaper collective defences rather than extremely costly private ones? Would they agree that poverty is best seen as a kind of disaster, for which our first question shouldn’t be ‘what did you do to bring this upon yourself’ but ‘how we can help, and ensure that this doesn’t happen again’?

It’s hard to know for sure, but in part that’s because few have really tried. As Stretton suggests, if Labor thinks it is going to lose the 2007 election, why not lose it ‘with an up-to-date program of full employment and other blessings’ (p. 285)? Perhaps there would be a massive rejection, a horrible scare campaign, a signal of terrible public alienation. We would end up feeling worse than we do now. But what if Labor won or even got close on the basis of such a platform? And there are other clues. On page thirteen of its April 23, 2004 edition, Melbourne’s Herald-Sun reported the results of an ‘Eye on Australia’ survey. More respondents chose the gap between rich and poor (83 per cent) and the high cost of housing (78 per cent) as major national challenges than either personal safety (64 per cent) or terrorism (58 per cent). In the same survey, when asked what Australia should try to become, 93 per cent said ‘more inventive’, 92 per cent said ‘more caring’, 90 per cent said ‘fairer’ and 87 per cent said ‘kinder’; 75 per cent wanted it to be ‘more able to defend itself’. I’m not a party strategist. But, to me, that looks a little bit like a potential political constituency.

When the people of the future come to write the histories of the early 21st century, they will note the discussions of increasing inequality and the evidence of division and they will ask: who stood and spoke against this? Who offered hope and solutions, and who offered only escape and denial and indignation? I hope that both of these scholars, and both of these works, will serve as proof of the power of hope and the power of well-reasoned arguments to move hearts and minds. In any event, I know that they will both stand as testimony to the resilience of an argument for a fairer, kinder and more adventurous Australia.

Mark Peel is an historian and works at Monash University; his most recent book was The Lowest Rung: Voices of Australian Poverty (Cambridge University Press, 2003).