League and the ladder of life - Op Ed, The Daily Telegraph


The Daily Telegraph, 4 January 2019

Many of us like to think as rugby league as the great working class game. But despite its egalitarian beginnings, the early decades of league showed the kind of fixed hierarchy that would have made a baron blush. Souths won every premiership from 1925 to 1929. St George won every premiership from 1956 to 1966.

From the 1970s, things began to change. It became simpler for players to move across teams. New clubs were encouraged to enter the competition. In 1990, a salary cap was instituted, limiting the ability of the richest teams to snap up all the best players. It’s now been two decades since any team won back-to-back league premierships.

The story of rugby league illustrates that it is possible to move from a static, predictable environment into one that is more fluid, mobile, and surprising. But it didn’t happen by accident. Social mobility on the league ladder came about because we changed the rules. We didn’t let the free market rip.

It turns out that this commitment to mobility isn’t just restricted to the playing field. Most people, regardless of ideology, find the idea of a feudal society distasteful. Across the political spectrum, whether you’re talking to progressives or conservatives, almost everyone believes in a society where a child’s outcomes aren’t predestined from birth.

Yet Australia today suffers from too little mobility. In countries like Denmark, Canada, Germany and Finland, children find it much easier to jump from rags to riches than they do in Australia. We all know that children inherit their height from their parents. But did you know that parental income is two-thirds as hereditable as parental height? If you want to get rich in Australia, choose your parents wisely. 

The lack of social mobility means that raw talent misses out. We have too many ‘lost Einsteins’: people who might have gone on to be great inventors, if only they were given the right environment. There isn’t enough class-jumping in Australia.

So what might we do to increase intergenerational mobility?

First, we need to recognise that ‘start at the beginning’ isn’t ambitious enough. A healthy pregnancy is vital, so mothers need access to paid parental leave, properly funded legal aid for family violence victims, and the ability to visit a doctor without worrying about the cost. New research on nurse home visits for disadvantaged families suggest that they can have be transformative.

Second, measures that reduce overall income inequality are also likely to increase mobility. It’s hard to climb the ladder of life when the rungs are spaced a long way apart. A fair tax system and worker-friendly industrial laws are likely to deliver a more equal society. Rebalancing the housing market from investors to first homebuyers will also reduce inequality. In turn, that is likely to lead to greater mobility.

Third, it is vital to recognise the role that quality schooling plays in improving social mobility. In Australian households with highly educated parents, six out of ten children are read to every day. Where parents have low levels of education, that figure falls to three out of ten. Evidence-based education reform is at the core of boosting intergenerational mobility in Australia. That’s why we need to restore the $14 billion that has been cut from public schools, and put in place an evidence institute for schools, to ensure that education policies are shaped by the best available research.

Fourth, we need to track our performance on intergenerational mobility. A Labor Government would task the Productivity Commission to produce an Equality of Opportunity Report every five years. Like the Intergenerational Report, it would aim to focus national attention on how Australia is tracking in improving social mobility. The report might even identify the suburbs that are the best drivers of social mobility.

If you’re a Saints fan, perhaps you pine for the era when a child born in 1956 could reach the end of primary school without ever seeing another team win the grand final. But true lovers of league will recognise that the game is a better sport today because it has more competitive balance.

Our challenge today is to ensure that society doesn’t revert back to the kind of feudal structure in which it’s hard for a child to move up the ladder of life. But as in league, that won’t happen by accident. To make the most of every child’s opportunities, we need to ensure that our schools, our tax system, and our workplace laws are serving fairness, not entrenching privilege.

Andrew Leigh is the Shadow Assistant Treasurer, and his website is www.andrewleigh.com

Authorised by Noah Carroll, ALP, Canberra.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.