The Daily Telegraph today extracts a portion of my new book, Battlers and Billionaires: The Story of Inequality in Australia.
Whiff of Inequality in the Land of the Fair Go, Daily Telegraph, 10 July 2013
In 2002, two bombs exploded in Bali nightclubs, killing and injuring hundreds of people. At the local hospital, there was a shortage of painkillers. Graeme Southwick, an Australian doctor on duty, asked patients to assess their own pain levels. He kept being told by patients in the ‘Australian’ ward that they were okay – the person next to them was suffering more.
Coming across this account, the historian John Hirst was reminded of the description of injured Australians in Gallipoli nearly a century earlier. He quotes the official war historian Charles Bean, who describes the suffering and then says, ‘Yet the men never showed better than in these difficulties. The lightly hurt were full of thought for the severely wounded.’ Even in the midst of their own pain, the first instinct of many Australians was to think of those worse off than themselves.
A sceptic might suggest that Bean viewed our men’s suffering through patriotic glasses, or that the wounded soldiers of other nations behaved similarly. But Australia’s egalitarian spirit shows up in other places too. Writing in a major daily newspaper last year, the entrepreneur Christopher Joye argued that the competitive nature of sport proved Australians didn’t believe in inequality. ‘We do not handicap an athlete,’ Joye argued, ‘because they are abnormally fast.’ But it turns out that this is exactly how our sports often operate. Many Australian team sports have salary caps, while many individual sports have handicap systems. As any golfer can tell you, handicaps make the game more fun, because they allow people of different abilities to compete with one another.
We don’t just handicap people. Australia’s favourite horse race, the Melbourne Cup, literally puts lead in the saddlebags. Horses must carry at least forty-nine kilograms, and racing historians celebrate Carbine, who won the 1890 Cup with a whopping sixty-six kilograms. Extra weight is put on horses that have already performed well. By contrast, America’s most famous race, the Kentucky Derby, does not add weight based on a horse’s past performance. The Melbourne Cup is a more egalitarian race than the Kentucky Derby.
Australian beliefs about inequality even explain why Rugby League split from Rugby Union in the early twentieth century. Because Union refused to allow player payments, it was a fine game for private schoolboys, but no way for a working-class man to make a living. For the remainder of the twentieth century, League dominated Union in the key states of New South Wales and Queensland. In the United Kingdom, a similar split occurred, but League never came to enjoy the same national success.
In the 1850s, an English gold-digger wrote home that ‘Rank and title have no charms in the Antipodes.’ In the 1880s, an essayist opined that Australia ‘is the true republic – the truest, as I take it, in the world … In England the average man feels that he is an inferior, in America that he is a superior; in Australia he feels that he is an equal. That is indeed delightful.’
The father of the Australian novel, Joseph Furphy, wrote in 1903 that human equality was ‘self-evident … and impregnable as any mathematical axiom’. Legend had it that Australia was the nation where Jack was as good as his master – if not better.
Egalitarianism has characterised the Australian national identity for well over 150 years – dating back to an era when the country was quite unequal. Similar sentiments were being expressed in other settler societies, such as Canada and the United States, but Australia’s powerful labour movement did more to make them a reality. After becoming more unequal in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Australia reached a turning point. From the 1920s to the 1970s, we steadily became a more equal society. But for the past thirty years, Australia has become more unequal, with the income share of the top 1 per cent doubling and that of the top 0.1 per cent tripling.
We need to stir a debate about inequality. One of my greatest fears is that we will sleepwalk into a more unequal Australia without realising what is being lost. As the social researcher Hugh Mackay put it in the late 1990s: ‘There is now a widespread belief … that both rich and poor Australians are becoming more numerous and that if the gap between them grows much wider, it may well turn out to be unbridgeable. Such a prospect is so disturbing to the Australian people – and so incompatible with their dreams – that they are reluctant to discuss it.’
We need to be careful that we do not unwittingly lose something that past generations of Australians have held sacred.
Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser. This is an edited extract of Battlers and Billionaires: The Story of Inequality in Australia (Black Inc, $19.95).
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