Equality...Is It So Last Century?

How egalitarian are we? And what role does public transport play in making for a more egalitarian society? Two essays from Catalyst, left wing think tank

Australia may have dodged the bullet that has put the US, Britain and most European economies on life support, but a new book released by union-backed think tank Catalyst shows that - despite our enviable economic position - Australia is not the egalitarian paradise many believe it to be.

Equality Speaks features an eclectic mix of writers who highlight a common challenge - to use our relatively stable economic times to make the shift to a fairer Australia.

It includes new research on the distribution of wealth in Australia by Frank Stilwell and David Primrose which reveals little movement in entrenched wealth and income inequality over the decade of our economic boom.

This is important because there is growing evidence that income and wealth equality within a society is vital to social well-being, health and happiness.

The new Australian data shows that inequalities in wealth are especially stark between men and women, between people working in different occupations and between households of couples (with and without children) compared with single people and sole parents.

Across occupations men who are managers and administrators have around four times the accumulated wealth of men who are trades-people, and no matter where they work, women have less wealth than men. This gender wealth gap applies to every single occupation that was reviewed and is greatest in the cashed up finance and insurance sector where men have an average wealth of $330,600 compared with an average of just $88,500 for women. 

An important contributor to wealth inequality is casual work. Stilwell and Primrose highlight that industries with high numbers of casual workers deliver very low levels of wealth for both sexes. Examples are retail trades and accommodation, restaurants and cafes. Men in construction also have low levels of personal wealth.

Elsewhere in the collection, Brigid vanWanroy highlights that CEO salaries have increased by a massive 564 percent between 1990 and 2005 - a period that saw the removal of a safety net at the other end of the labour market.

The persistence of wealth and income inequality must be discouraging news for those from the trickle-down school of economic redistribution, leading to the inevitable conclusion that market processes left to themselves will not generate greater equality.

Just as market driven public policy failed to redistribute wealth and income, Equality Speaks reveals that it has also proven incapable of closing gaps in life expectancy or of providing everyone with access to the basic benefits of work, transport, housing or health services when needed.

Market advocates argue that this is a problem caused by individuals not by public policy. They say poverty is due to haplessness, low education attainment and joblessness due to lack of initiative and drive, and poor health due to 'lifestyle' choices like diet and exercise. 

But this collection demonstrates that a strong public policy response that joins the dots across the spectrum of education, jobs, housing, transport, health and the other fundamentals of a good life is vital to creating an inclusive and equal society.

It is encouraging that the Rudd Labor Government has an agenda for social inclusion, and has reinvigorated investment agenda in community infrastructure, however real inclusion means doing more than simply broadening the reach of existing ways of doing things. What is required is creating new approaches to political participation that accord more closely with people's lives.

Above all, Equality Speaks makes it clear that if Australia is to be a fair and inclusive society, then we can and must do better.

For more information about Equality Speaks, go to www.catalyst.org.au/

Catalyst is a union-supported think tank focused on campaigns that bring about a more equal society. It believes that the true value of economic growth is to provide opportunities for all Australians to live good lives through good work in good communities.