A lucky country, for some

Wednesday, October 23, 1991 - 10:00

Inequality in Australia
Slicing the Cake
The Social Justice Collective
William Heinemann Australia, 1991. 338 pp. $19.95 pb
Reviewed by Stephen Robson

Inequality in Australia has increased during the period of the Hawke Labor government. This retrospective on the changes to Australian society brings out clearly and sharply the growing disparities.

Fourteen chapters focus on the specific reflections of these changes.

Bob Connell, Professor of Sociology at Monash University, looks at company shareholding, the relationship of income to assets, and the social division of wealth.

Connell concludes that the "general picture" is one of "a society where economic inequality is pervasive and deeply entrenched".

Geoffrey Lawrence, author of Capitalism and the Countryside, writes on differentiation in the countryside. Lawrence asserts that agriculture in Australia is being restructured in the interests of corporate agribusiness. "The economic polarisation resulting is, in turn, causing major dislocation."

A few facts dramatically confirm this:

  • About 3000 farmers are forced from their farms annually as family-based farming is transformed into large scale corporate-linked activity.

  • Mere survival was the big challenge for a significant proportion of farmers. About 25% of commercial farm producers receive an annual income of less than $3000 — and this when the economy was at a peak.

  • At the other end of the scale, we have Kerry Packer. Packer is one of the country's top three cattle owners, a fact that makes him one of the biggest purveyors of bullshit literally as well as metaphorically!

Anne Junor, in a section on education, goes further than simply presenting the facts. Junor takes up the "powerful myth, that inequality is located within individuals, is a major basis of educational inequality, and a major justification for workplace and social inequality".

Junor, a former research officer for the NSW, Teachers Federation, sees education in the '90s as "a commodity, and credentials and school references have become a form of currency in the job market".

Junor writes, "Because of the relationship between education and society, it is tempting to think that by changing education, we can bring about a more equal society". Reviewing the progress of education in Australia in this century, Junor concludes by calling for its democratisation. Ted Trainer writes of "A Green Perspective on Inequality". He argues that "unless we approach the topic in terms of the global 'limits to growth' predicament, that is in terms of the resources and environmental constraints that ever more frequently confront what might be described as the 'growth and greed' obsession, then we will not understand the way inequality and poverty are connected to such major problems as damage to the environment, resource depletion, Third World development, conflict and the quality of life".

Other chapters consider Aboriginal Australians, inequality and family policy, housing and urban inequalities, and law and order.

In an introduction, Rachel Sharp writes, "It would be tempting to blame the Labor government for any increases in inequality in Australia, which can be established as if governments alone could be held responsible".

Arguing that inequality is produced by a range of economic and social processes, Sharp says that at best governments can play "some mediating role".

But while it is true that governments cannot at whim repeal the economic laws of capitalism, they are far from powerless. Even a pro-capitalist government like Hawke's can regulate inequality through its policies on things like taxation and social welfare. The problem is that this government has a conscious policy of redistributing from the poor to the rich.

From GLW issue 32