Too much passing on of privilege - Transcript, 6PR Perth Live





SUBJECTS: Social mobility, inequality, marriage equality.

OLIVER PETERSON: To tell me more, Andrew Leigh joins me on Perth Live. Good afternoon.

ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: Good afternoon, Ollie. How are you?

PETERSON: I am very well. Andrew, this is fascinating. If your surname is Leigh or Peterson or whatever it is, or Smith, it might depend on what job you get. Tell us more!

LEIGH: [laughter] The two of us do have kind of unusual names, don’t we? The idea of this comes from an American researcher by the name of Greg Clark. A couple of years ago he did a book called “The Son Also Rises”, which looked at very long run social mobility. It asked the question: ‚if you look at surnames held by the elite a couple of centuries ago, are they still held by the elite these days?‘ And you can’t use common surnames like Smith or Jones to do this kind of exercise. You’ve got to look at rare surnames like Cade or Mendelsohn or Harbison – surnames that are held by a small number of people, where you know you’re following the same family groups. We find that when we applied that methodology to Australia, along with our co-author Mike Pottenger, that Australia looks like it’s a less mobile society than previous research has shown. Indeed, there seems to be a lot of stickiness at the top of the distribution. Yes, the elite groups do mix it up a little bit over time, but our estimates suggest that for full social mixing to take place, it takes about 300 years. That suggests that Australia, in this long run measure of mobility, isn’t any better than Britain or the United States.

PETERSON: It was interesting to see some of the rare surnames you found in this study that between 1870 and 1899 included A‘Beckett, Brissenden, Westacott and Zwar. I don’t know too many people with those surnames in 2017.

LEIGH: That’s the point. If you take, for example, the name of Harbison – it was held by a disproportionate number of doctors at the end of the nineteenth century and it’s held by a disproportionate number of doctors today. We’ve used a number of elite sources – the Australian Dictionary of Biography, the Colonial Doctors List. We’ve got lists of graduates from Melbourne and Sydney Universities, as two of the oldest elite universities in Australia. Each of those dat sets paints the same sort of picture. It’s a surprise to me, Ollie, because I authored a decade ago one of these other studies which had just looked at mobility just from one generation over to the next – just a single generation – and actually concluded Australia did pretty well on that metric. But it seems as even though the apple can fall away from the tree, over time it rolls back towards the trunk.


LEIGH: That is, even if the son has quite different outcomes from the father, by the time you look at the grandson or the great grandson, then you start to see a lot more stability within family groups – suggesting that us policy makers have a lot more work to do in order to create the truly mobile ‘class jumping‘ society that I reckon all Australians want to see.

PETERSON: Yeah, it is interesting, because anecdotally you do hear from time to time, don’t you Andrew, that he or she only landed that job because of who their father is or their grandfather is or their surname is, is known synonymously as being in that group of people or whatever. But this sheds a whole new light on that.

LEIGH: Exactly. Like you, Ollie, I hate those stories. I want to be part of a country where it didn’t matter where you were born in terms of where you end up. We’re a nation that prizes our soldiers as ‘diggers’, that calls one another ‘mate’ rather than ‘sir’ or ‘madam’, that doesn’t stand up when the Prime Minister enters the room, where many of us will ride in the front seat of taxis. We’ve got a really well targeted social safety net and we’ve got a strong immigration program. But despite all of that, there seems to be a lot more stasis in our society – not enough class jumping, too much passing on of privilege. So we’ve got a lot more work to do if we’re to live up to those ideals of mobility that we all prize.

PETERSON: Before I let you go, Andrew Leigh, you’d of course hear today there is some speculation that this High Court challenge to the same-sex marriage plebiscite. It may be deemed unconstitutional, that the letters may not be able to be posted out and that we may not all be about to have our say when it comes to same-sex marriage. What do you think would be the outcome here if the High Court says it will be unconstitutional, what should the Government do?

LEIGH: Ollie, the Government is resting on a fairly fragile basis here. They couldn’t get legislation through the parliament for this survey and therefore they’re effectively saying that this was unforeseen. But it’s pretty hard to argue that it’s an unforeseen expenditure when they went to the last election backing it. Sure, that was their policy at the last election. Labor’s policy was not to have a survey because we thought that would be a divisive way of tackling the issue.  We reckon it ought to be dealt with in parliament, just as the last 20 changes to the Marriage Act were done. When we had the Sex Discrimination Act, the Racial Discrimination Act we didn’t have a survey beforehand. We just got on and extended equal rights. This isn’t about Safe Schools, it’s not about transgender bathrooms. It’s simply about whether a couple that loves one another can tie the knot.

PETERSON: So you would say if this fails that the Parliament should basically get on with the job and decide to sort it out within the Parliament, turn around and don’t ask the people and let’s get on with it?

LEIGH: Absolutely. Indeed, I don’t remember any conservatives back in September 2012 when the Parliament had a free vote on marriage equality saying we ought to have a plebiscite or a survey beforehand. We had a different result then, because the numbers were different in the Parliament. But now public support and support within the Parliament for marriage equality is strong. The numbers are there in the community – let’s just get it on and get it done. I heard from a woman recently who said that she’d been wanting to have her grandparents there at the wedding. But her grandma just passed away and grandpa’s not looking terribly healthy. She sees a real urgency in getting marriage equality, so her last grandparent can be there on the big day.

PETERSON: Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh, thanks for your time on Perth Live.

LEIGH: Thank you, Ollie. 


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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.