Is the Australian ‘fair go’ dead in 2014?

Melbourne taxi driver Ravi Sharma came to Australia from northern India eight years ago, hoping for “the better life”. He is glad to have escaped the corruption, unemployment and low wages of his old home. But on $12 an hour, with no paid holidays or benefits and his last wage increase happening six long years ago, Sharma is still struggling to find Australia’s famed level playing field.

“My personal view is that 90 per cent of the taxi drivers are migrants,” says Sharma. “I think this is the reason. It’s for the migrants, so it’s put to the side.”

Australians have long cherished egalitarianism as a defining — if not the defining — characteristic of our national culture. We like to think of our country as a place where anyone can improve their lot in life through hard work, determination and resourcefulness. We embrace the underdog, cut tall poppies down to size, and go to great lengths to distance ourselves from what we see as the rigid class system of our British forebears.

But as the experience of Sharma — and a raft of statistics — demonstrate, it’s harder for those on the margins of society to get ahead than many Australians would like to believe. 

The rich are getting richer…

Central to the idea of the ‘fair go’ is the belief that we are a “diamond-shaped” society, with a big middle class and a small percentage of people on either side. Many Australians point to this as proof of our egalitarian ethos on the basis that, barring a few outliers at the top and bottom of the pile, most of us have a modest but comfortable lifestyle, comprising home ownership, a decent education and access to healthcare.

The statistics, however, tell a different story. The truth is that our society is becoming more stratified – and this wealth inequality is getting worse over time.

“Across the developed world, our level of inequality puts us in about the top third, so we’re clearly more unequal than most of Europe, but not at the same level of inequality as, say, Mexico or the US,” says renowned economist and member of Parliament Dr Andrew Leigh. “We tend to sit around about where the UK is. We’re in their ballpark.”

The fact that our society is comparable with the United Kingdom may come as a shock to many Australians, given our aversion to the perceived snobbishness of our colonial heritage. But it gets worse.

The richest 20 per cent of the population (with 61 per cent of the nation’s wealth) is sitting on an average net worth of $2.2 million per household, while the poorest fifth (with one per cent of the wealth) has an average of just $31,205 per household (ABS, 2011-12).

Taken another way, the most prosperous half of Australians own almost 90 per cent of the country’s assets (ABS, 2011-12). And the top 10 per cent hold almost half of all the wealth in this country, while the bottom half split a share of only 12 per cent of the nation’s net worth.

Most troubling of all, the divide between rich and poor has been widening in recent decades, following a long period of contraction from Federation to the 1970s. The upshot? Low-paid workers like Sharma are being pushed further and further away from the comfortable middle class.

How hard is it to get ahead?

More conservative thinkers argue that some inequalities, such as tax breaks for the rich and lower rates of welfare for the unemployed, help our society to function in an optimal way. This is because they act as incentives for people to contribute to the broader population and reward the efforts of those who strive to make their own way in the world.

For Sharma, earning even a moderate wage means working extremely long hours. In tough conditions, he is scrimping to save for his own home. He dreams of starting an Indian restaurant with his wife in five years’ time.

Compared with other nations, Sharma has a so-so chance of realising his goals. According to previous research by Dr Leigh, social mobility in Australia has been stagnant since the 1960s. Even though we enjoy far greater mobility than the US, we are still a less fluid society than the Scandinavian countries and about on par with the UK.

“My cousin is living in America, and we are always on the phone comparing how the quality of life is. He agrees that Australia is better than the US,” says Sharma, citing better healthcare, higher average wages, and lower crime rates.

Perhaps reflecting the growing inequalities of Australian society, Dr Leigh notes celebrities and millionaires are beginning to supplant the “battler” in the popular imagination.

“Whether it’s The Block or Dancing with the Stars, I think there is a greater extent to which Australians lionise the super rich and that’s somewhat risky,” he says.

What’s driving the trend?

Dr Leigh attributes the bulk of economic inequality in Australia to the rise of technology and globalisation, the fall of unions, and changes in taxation. He expects technological advances will increase these pressures, at least in the short term.

“There’s not as many jobs available for, particularly, men with a low level of education who are good with their hands. For a relatively low-educated man who’s good at making things, the 1960s were a much better labour market than the 2010s are,” says Dr Leigh. “I certainly think there’s more occupations that are going to be expunged by computerisation in the future than there have been so far. A lot of kids who leave school now are going to finish their careers in jobs that don’t yet exist.”

What can be done?

It’s difficult to figure out how we might inject new life into the concept of egalitarianism, since the idea is so hotly contested. Does this mean it’s time to reconsider what the ‘fair go’ actually represents?

Dr Leigh thinks that boosting our results in education could be the way to fight the growing divide, and keep inequality in check.

“One of the reasons why we’ve seen a smaller rise in equality than we might have otherwise over the last generation is that we’ve had significant increases in Year 12 attendance, university completion, and vocational training. If we hadn’t seen that, then we would be even more unequal,” he says.

Becoming a smarter nation makes sense, but what about the groups that have historically been excluded from our national myth? Perhaps broadening the fair go beyond what Dr Leigh calls “a blokes’ egalitarianism” is the way forward to a type of equality we can all enjoy.

“To be effective, egalitarianism has to be inclusive, and that means including women, indigenous Australians, new migrants — and of course those groups are all overrepresented at the bottom of the distributions. So as the gap between rich and poor widens, so too does, for example, the gender gap divide,” says Dr Leigh.

Such comments suggest egalitarianism means more than just economic equality.

Melbourne barrister Matthew Albert, an expert in refugee law and a strong advocate of human rights, argues the concept extends to all areas of society, including the law, and that economic data does not give the full picture.

Albert sees the law as “a powerful mechanism by which change towards egalitarianism can be made”, but acknowledges more needs to be done to ensure everyone is treated fairly before the law.

“One could not say that we are egalitarian in relation to opportunity when we still ban homosexual marriage, lock up people who have committed no crime and deny people access to their own ancestral land,” he says.

At the end of the day, if a taxi driver cannot receive the same fair go as everyone else, then perhaps we must admit that the concept of egalitarianism is dead, or that it never even existed.

The fact that Ravi Sharma can be looked down on because of what he does for a living implies that the fair go might be a figment of our collective imaginations, or even a reinforcement of our prejudices.

“If I go anywhere in my taxi uniform, they will treat me differently. But if I go in my plain clothes, they will assume that I am working in an IT company,” he says. “So I avoid to go out in a taxi uniform to any other place. If I really have to go, I keep a t-shirt in my bag.”

And yet, Sharma and his pregnant wife are delighted and surprised at how an expectant mother is always given a seat on public transport, and at the complete absence of sexual harassment in her workplace.

We face a long road ahead if we want to claw back the financial fair go, but perhaps for now each and every one of us can keep egalitarianism alive through how we treat those around us.

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