Government has an obligation to society's unlucky

The government might prefer talking about issues other than the budget, but we can't let them off the hook that easily. In today's Hobart Mercury, I've taken a look at how two particular budget measures favour the lucky at the expense of creating opportunity for all.

Government has an obligation to society's unlucky, Hobart Mercury, 13 October

In the pantheon of Australian sport, no-one sits higher than Don Bradman. Like Babe Ruth in baseball and Wayne Gretzky in ice hockey, Bradman dominated cricket like no other player.

And yet, even for Bradman, luck played a role.

In international cricket, half of all batsmen make their debut at home, and half abroad. That means half get to play their first international test on a familiar wicket, while the other half must confront an unknown one.

That difference matters: a cricketer who makes his debut at home averages one-third more runs than one who happens to play his first match overseas.  What’s more, the scoring differential is persistent: a batsman who debuts at home will go on to have a career batting average that is one-fifth larger than a player who walks out on a foreign wicket. 

So when the Don walked out to make his Test Cricket debut at the Gabba in 1928, he was not only one of the most talented men ever to take the field. He was also lucky, because he was starting his test career on a familiar wicket.

We don’t often talk about the role that luck plays in the lives of successful people. We prefer to laud their achievements and praise their unique skills, downplaying any role for the Goddess Fortuna.

And yet luck plays a huge role in our path through life. Don Bradman would probably still have become one of history’s greatest batsmen if he had debuted at Lord’s or Lahore, but it’s unlikely the ABC’s GPO Box number would be 9994 if Bradman had started his career overseas.

The cricketing case isn’t all that different from the varying work and education opportunities offered to Australians by accident of their birth. One of the biggest problems with the Coalition’s first budget is that it favours the few who are lucky instead of creating opportunities for those who are dealt an unfortunate hand. 

Consider the difference between Burnie and Sydney’s eastern suburbs. The unemployment rate in Burnie is around 10.5 per cent; in Sydney’s east it is just over 2 per cent. The people of Burnie are not any less talented or full of potential than their Sydney counterparts. There are simply far fewer jobs available in that part of Australia, and so an accident of birth becomes a barrier to building a successful working life. None of us gets to choose our parents or the postcode into which we are born.

The same can be said of studying at university. Go into a lecture hall today and you will find that three-fifths of the students belong to families where both parents have a tertiary degree. Just one-fifth come from families where neither parent has ever been to university.

Being born into a family with the financial, educational and social resources to support higher learning is another accident of luck. Those who aren’t so blessed must navigate a path to university around obstacles which too often end up barring their way entirely.

While we should never begrudge anyone life’s good fortune, nor should we support policies which favour the lucky while closing off opportunities for everyone else. The Coalition’s plan to dump young people off Newstart payments for six months at a time is one such policy; its suggestion that university debts should be indexed to the government bond rate is another.  

Both of these changes will make it much more difficult for disadvantaged Australians to achieve their potential by placing new obstacles in their paths to work and study.

In office, Labor introduced initiatives like the Australian Apprenticeships Access Program – helping jobseekers gain skills to match trades in their area; and the Higher Education Participation and Partnership Program – providing mentoring and outreach to bring more ‘first in family’ students to university.

We understood then – and we continue to believe – that creating opportunities for people who don’t start out with many is the fundamental duty of the Australian government. In the wake of the government’s first budget blueprint for our future, it has never been clearer that the Coalition does not share our belief.

Luck is not distributed fairly or widely throughout our community. But opportunity can be if those in charge believe in it, work on it and are willing to fight for it. That is why Labor will continue to bat away at the Coalition’s unfair budget with the same tenacity that Bradman faced Bodyline.     


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