‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’

An equal marriage rally in Sydney.
October 7, 2017

So declared George Orwell’s allegorical Joseph Stalin, Napoleon the Berkshire Boar, in his 1945 classic Animal Farm. In Australia, we’ve declared war on some inequalities, like those contained in the Marriage Act, while we acquiesce to, tolerate, ignore or accept many others. Just like the animals on Orwell’s Manor Farm, in contemporary Australia, it seems all inequalities are equal but some are more equal than others.

If there is a silver lining to the very dark and expensive cloud that is the Malcolm Turnbull government’s postal survey on equal marriage — and it is a hard lining to see sometimes — it is that equality has been at the forefront of the public consciousness and discourse for a sustained period.

Equal marriage

To the extent that the current equal marriage fiasco means that the inequalities of the current marriage laws in this country are better recognised, discussed, understood and hopefully soon remedied, then there is a social positive to take from the divisive political shambles. I’m pretty sure it’s not $122 million worth of silver lining, but it is something.

Thousands of people are emblazoning their social media profile pics with the word “equality”. Equality is coming at us hourly through our social media feeds and TV screens. Equality is on billboards, bumpers and bus shelters. The spring air is thick with blossoming equality, a fragrant combination of justice, love and hope, with a lingering whiff of opportunity.

That opportunity is to bundle-up and retain the considerable social and political focus on notions of equality, successfully built up by the Yes campaign, and parlay that energy into actions to address other, equally destructive, inequalities, both entrenched and emerging.

If we have the community will to tackle one fundamental inequality, like marriage inequality, we surely have the social and political capital to address other fundamental inequalities as well, providing there is an accompanying will.

Equality doesn’t begin and end with marriage equality. In fact, it barely begins.

Let’s look at just two of the entrenched and growing areas of inequality in our society, which are ripe for some action; and think about how fair dinkum we really are about equality. They are water equality and employment equality.

Water equality

In parts of Australia, particularly in remote communities in the Northern Territory and Western Australia, but other places too, thousands of Australians are living in third world conditions in terms of their levels of access to safe water and sanitation. For a range of reasons — overcrowded housing, decrepit infrastructure, government neglect — thousands of Australians endure conditions those of us who live in the suburbs (where when you turn on the tap clean water comes out and the toilets flush) never experience.

Imagine the hue and cry from the suburban masses if the water went off in Melbourne or Sydney, even for a day. Yet thousands of Australians, right now, endure life in a state of relentless and sustained squalor.

The extent of water inequality in Australia is set out very clearly in a discussion paper released earlier this year by the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, Water, sanitation and hygiene in remote Indigenous Australia: A scan of priorities.

As outlined in the paper, in 2014–15, 38% of the Indigenous adult population in remote and very remote areas, were living in overcrowded conditions — about three times the rate of those living in non-remote areas. Almost a third of those people were living in housing in which one or more of the key facilities (toilet, water, washing machine, cooking facilities) were not functioning.

Unsurprisingly, rates of disease and infection in those communities are very high. Water and hygiene-related illnesses like diarrhoeal disease are endemic, as is the blinding disease, trachoma. In fact, Australia is the only country in the developed world to have not eradicated endemic trachoma. Laos, Cambodia, Ecuador, Mexico, Guatemala, Morocco and others have managed to eradicate endemic trachoma, but not us.

Trachoma is caused by a bacterium that inflames the eye, and recurrent infections cause scarring of the eye and structural changes to the eyelid that can result in blindness. Its incidence correlates directly to a range of water and sanitation-related factors, including irregular hand washing, limited access to clean water and overcrowded housing. The 2013 trachoma survey found that some “at risk” communities had instances of trachoma as high as 84% in children aged 5–9 years.

Similarly, glue ear, which is influenced by poor water and hygiene practices and can cause permanent hearing loss and developmental difficulties, is prominent in these communities. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that one in eight Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people reported ear and/or hearing problems in 2012–13.   This is significantly more than non-Indigenous people.

Sanitation

Australia is a signatory to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which include targets for access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all; as well as ending open defecation and paying special attention to the needs of women and girls.

Basic sanitary products can be unaffordable, unavailable or too shameful to buy for girls and women in Australia’s remote Indigenous communities. The University of Queensland Paper contained interviews with organisations working in multiple remote Australian communities and reveals anecdotal evidence girls are missing school during their periods.

The interviews indicate women and girls may use toilet paper, socks and rags instead of expensive sanitary products, which were reported to cost $10 a packet. Girls and women might not buy the items if a male relative is serving in the shop. Underwear is expensive, and there are some cultural taboos around washing and drying underwear in a visible place. Often the rags and underwear end up in the toilets, which then block, and are expensive to repair and the cycle continues.

In 2015 an Auditor General’s audit of water quality in 271 remote communities in WA found that 68 communities reported drinking water contamination from sewage-derived E.coli or Naegleria sp. microbes at least once in the two year reporting period.

So it seems there is a strong case to be made that we don’t have water equality in this country, and that lack of equality is having a devastating impact on the health and economic prospects of thousands of young Australians.

I wonder how many lives could be improved if the $122 million cost of the postal ballot was directed to water and sanitation infrastructure in remote Indigenous communities. We need water equality every bit as much as we need marriage equality.

Employment equality

The other, less entrenched and perhaps more readily fixable, inequality that could benefit from the equality zeitgeist we are all feeling, is employment equality.

More specifically, the emerging division between those workers in our economy who enjoy what we might call employment equality — they are permanently employed and have rights to superannuation, holiday and sick pay, workcover and other protections and legislated minimum standards — and those that are gig economy “contractors”. It is an inequity that provides the profits that feed the ravenous beast that is the gig economy — an economy underpinned by the subversion of minimum employment standards, pay and conditions.

By virtue of an app-enabled sleight of hand, workers are being manipulated by unscrupulous operators of ridesharing companies, food delivery operations and others into signing up to work effectively without rights. They are winding up in economic free fall, completely at the mercy of the Ubers and Deliveroos of the world.

This divide is real and will bite harder as the reality of working without the safety net of workplace health and safety rules, minimum wages, superannuation or parental leave, washes through the economy. Inevitably, people will be injured, or worse, in one of these gig economy jobs and the reality of working uninsured will add to the pain.

If the trend is allowed to run unchecked and a class of low paid, no-rights workers become an entrenched feature of our economy, we all lose, not just the poor workers. It is estimated that gig economy workers comprise less than 1% of the Australian workforce. As our economy transitions away from manufacturing, the number of workers entering the gig economy is expected to grow.  

The closure of Toyota’s automotive assembly plant in Melbourne this month has resulted in the loss of 2600 direct jobs. Government modelling shows that component suppliers will shed about 3000 jobs as a result of Toyota’s decision to end local manufacturing. The lucky ones will retrain and/or be re-employed. Many others will find their way into the dog-eat-dog world of the gig economy.

As this transition occurs, unless regulators catch up with the gig companies, the divide that exists now — between those who are full participants in the economy (who go on holidays, have superannuation, fair wages and sick pay) and those who don’t — will grow, and employment inequality will increase.

The implications for workers and the economy of this growing divide are significant. At a macro level, overall income tax receipts decline and fewer workers accrue sufficient superannuation in their working lives to support themselves in retirement. Wealth is transferred from the government and individuals to business operators and the taxpayers end up picking up the tab.

We are likely to see a rising number of people working longer hours for less money in often dangerous environments. The gig business model of sub-minimum wage pay in many cases, doesn’t allow these workers to accrue any surplus funds or capacity to save, let alone protect themselves through self-insurance or to invest for the future. It is an emerging gap that needs to be closed, and fast. The alternative, a country of 20 million ABN-holding “contractors” scrambling like seagulls for the last chip, is a very unedifying prospect.  

We need employment equality every bit as much as marriage equality.

Equality

Gig economy workers, Indigenous peoples living in remote communities, and the LGBTI community are all, in statistical terms, small population cohorts. Depending on which research you believe, somewhere between 4%–6% of the Australian population identify as gay or lesbian. Indigenous peoples make up about 3% of Australia’s population, and about 20% of those live in remote communities. That equates to just over 100,000 people, which is also approximately how many gig economy workers there currently are in Australia.

As I hope will be borne out by the results of this ridiculous ballot we are being subjected to, as a community we have agreed that equality is something we care about, regardless of how many of us it directly affects. Inequality and injustice diminish us all.  

When the dust has settled on the equal marriage issue and the Marriage Act is changed, we need to make sure we don’t roll up and stack away our compassion along with our campaign banners.

Amending the Marriage Act doesn’t eliminate inequality in this country. It represents a beginning only; an opportunity to address other, equally damaging, inequalities — in personal, social and economic terms. Water and employment inequality are just two examples of inequality, but there are many others, such as gender, racial and economic inequality that Australia needs to address to make genuine progress towards becoming a fair and equitable society.

If we are as fair dinkum about the Aussie fair go as we like to think we are, we need to be brave enough to stare down all inequalities, not just some. If we don’t, we would have to agree with Napoleon the pig that all animals, like all inequalities, are equal, but some are more equal than others.

[Richard McEncroe is a Melbourne-based writer and public policy consultant.]

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