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Lifters and leaners: why the idea of equality of opportunity is a big con

Date

Bill Garner

Joe Hockey repudiates equality as a political ideal in a country that boasts of egalitarianism. No wonder the budget's so hard to sell.

Illustration: John Spooner.

Illustration: John Spooner.

During the First World War, Australian soldiers in London were abused by the officer class and the English as "verandah-post leaners". Cartoons suggest they were commonly found adopting that comfortable posture. Not only did the criticism from "above" fail to stop them leaning against convenient posts, they responded by leaning even more laconically. They weren’t leaning because they were lazy; they were leaning because, on leave from the Western Front, they had earned the right to lean. Leaning was a pointed demonstration to the English of colonial egalitarianism. As Australians, leaning was their right.

In his recent speech to the Sydney Institute, Treasurer Joe Hockey summarised the government’s philosophical position on equality as "for equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome" (The Age June 13, 2014). He takes it as self-evident that it is "not the job of government to manufacture the outcome from public policy in such a way as to ensure that every person is an equal beneficiary ..." In saying this he is not only drawing on one of the most persistent criticisms of equality as a political ideal - that it is impossible to implement in practice - he is going much further: he is explicitly repudiating equality as a political ideal.

But, since it is not politically acceptable to repudiate the cherished and widely held belief that Australians are all equal, it is necessary to pay lip service to the idea, even while emptying it of content. "Equality of opportunity" is a well-tried cover. It is the version of equality you claim to believe in when you do not believe in equality at all. Indeed, some in the Liberal Party are now coming close to embracing the extreme neo-liberal position that it is actually inequality that is desirable, because it releases individual initiative and is economically more productive. That is a very difficult argument to sell in a country that boasts of its egalitarianism.

The big problem for Hockey and the Liberals is that the debate on equality has shifted dramatically. Since the Occupy movement popularised the divide between the 1 per cent and the 99 per cent, and the high-fliers shook off the GFC without penalty or shame, now followed by the extraordinary success of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, the discourse has moved onto different ground. The public issue is no longer the problematic ideal of equality but rather the relentless promotion of inequality.

Conservatives were much more comfortable with debating equality because of its historical associations with socialism, as even without recourse to philosophical argument, they could appeal to its seeming practical impossibility in real terms. But now people aren’t talking about equality, they are all talking about inequality. That is a debate in which the Right finds itself very exposed.

In Australia, where the meaning and extent of egalitarianism may be disputed, there is still a very strong attachment to the idea that we are, as a people, in some way equal. It is politically necessary for the neo-liberals to claim that, despite everything they say and do that might suggest otherwise, they really still do believe in equality. That is why "equality of opportunity" is talked up. It is, to be blunt, a con.

The problem with equality of opportunity is that it appears to be completely compatible with unlimited material inequality. Indeed, it is promoted as such. The "starting line" metaphor suggests that life is simply a race and that it is a fair race if everyone starts from the same line. But we all know people don’t start from the same place financially, educationally, in terms of health, or culturally. The only way we might get people even near such a starting line is by redistribution of wealth, but redistribution on a sufficient scale is labelled by Hockey as "unfair" to those who have accumulated it.

When the debate shifts from equality to inequality, the role of intuitive popular understanding changes sides: this time it is on the side of those who believe that the degree of inequality is both unfair and increasing. This appears to be not only the view of the majority of people in Australia, but of the majority of people in the world.

The history of welfare in Australia has always been a changeable mix of private and public provision, but the recent enthusiasm by neo-liberal governments for a greater reliance on charity (and personal responsibility) is a remarkable turn back to the darkest days of the 19th century and the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor. Charity was then a creator and marker of class division: the "givers" were morally superior and the "takers" were morally inferior. Conservatives thought it instrumentally useful that the takers of charity should feel shame. Apparently they still do.

When the sales force of the federal government employs the terms "lifters" and "leaners" it is drawing on just this type of retrograde 19th-century imagery. It is not surprising they are finding a budget based on such social divisiveness hard to sell. Australians generally regard themselves  as lifters, and very capable ones. But, like the Diggers in London, we also believe, that after we have fought hard, or been injured, or are just plain tired from a lifetime of lifting, we have the right to lean.

Dr Bill Garner is a Research Associate at the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne.

92 comments so far

  • The most striking thing about all this neocon twaddle is that it has been done before and it failed miserably. The redoubtable Maggie Thatcher thought the rise of the entrepreneurs would lead to swelling treasury coffers and a Victorian sense of duty that would lead to billions in charity directed at the dirty poor.

    What she and like minded supply siders got were huge deficits, high unemployment, devastated manufacturing and massive asset bubbles. They also managed to fit expensive, unnecessary conflicts/wars and a transformation of the well off to the uber wealthy. Couldn't happen here could it?

    Commenter
    Maj
    Date and time
    June 18, 2014, 1:07AM
    • @Maj: "Couldn't happen here could it?"

      To quote Michael Palin, "No no no no no no no. Yes."

      The Liberal Party are quite a bunch of leaners themselves. They lean quite strongly to the Right.

      "Equality of opportunity" is the real myth. As Bill Gamer explains above, you'd have to have the same starting line, which is an equal distribution of wealth. The unequal outcomes, however, would be handed down to the next generation, so that there would be no equality of opportunity there.

      "Equality of opportunity" would mean that James Packer and Gina Rinehart would have started without their inheritances. It would mean that exclusive private schools like Wesley and Knox would not be there. It would mean there was no Melbourne Club. It would mean public facilities would be of a uniform high standard everywhere. All the mechanisms used by the capitalists to entrench their privilege and hand it on to the next generation would not exist. In short, capitalism would not be capitalism.

      We definitely need equality - and that means equality of outcome. It has been discredited for the time being by the Stalinist fraudsters, but a new workers' movement is being born as the imperatives of capitalism rain hammer blows of realism on workers around the world. The new workers' movement will guard jealously against those who would corrupt its democratic processes and usurp power for themselves.

      We won't get fooled again.

      Commenter
      Greg Platt
      Location
      Brunswick
      Date and time
      June 18, 2014, 11:23AM
    • Furthermore, it is only through lies that this sort of policy can get through the democratic system. The vast majority doesn't want this type of Australia, and the neo-cons know it. The lack of pride in their own beliefs is what is most startling. They will not come out and proudly anounce what they believe and what their intenstions are.

      Commenter
      Nothing Changes
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      June 18, 2014, 12:38PM
    • So it isn't a "neo con" just an age old con!

      Commenter
      The witch
      Location
      Beyond the grave
      Date and time
      June 18, 2014, 12:58PM
    • Equity, yes - a fair go for all. That's the Australian spirit and tradition.

      Equality, no - equal outcome regardless whether you try or not. That's the route to sloth, indolence, and the worst outcomes of communism.

      Commenter
      Nick
      Location
      Greensborough
      Date and time
      June 18, 2014, 2:18PM
    • LNP is leaning on Gina Rinehart, Murdock and big businesses to deceive voters for their own survival. They have an excellent opportunity to prove they are leaning on voters rather than those mentioned above by bringing on a double dissolution.

      Commenter
      Sensible
      Date and time
      June 18, 2014, 4:06PM
  • A real commitment to equality of opportunity would see a great deal more money going into public schools to assist their students get to the same starting line and as well-prepared as those from the private schools.
    Hockey, Abbott, Joyce, Bishop, Pyne and the rest of them are all products of private schools and have no empathy for anyone outside their own tight circle which, in the case of the first two, includes two of the wealthiest electorates in Australia.
    I remain dumbfounded by Hockey's characterisation of criticism of the worst budget in Australian history as class warfare that dates from the 1970s, a time when he, a private school graduate, was receiving a free education at university and demonstrating about paying some petty fees. The Age of Entitlement only ended when the entitled had no further need of it themselves - and they are damned if they are going to see it extended to others, regardless of their social disadvantage.
    Posted at 1.56am

    Commenter
    Doug
    Location
    Canberra
    Date and time
    June 18, 2014, 1:58AM
    • Yes and the other way "we might get people even near such a starting line is by redistribution of wealth, is to have an education and health and early education catch up that tries to equalise the starting line because it recognises that inequality starts before birth.

      Commenter
      sangela
      Date and time
      June 18, 2014, 10:02AM
    • It could be argued that extra money to public schools is not necessary since the majority of university students come from public schools and the majority of premier award receivers also come from public schools.

      Commenter
      Jane2
      Date and time
      June 18, 2014, 1:01PM
  • Life does not have a level playing field.
    (Isn't it amazing just how many phrases, slogans and euphemisms that Abbott, Hockey, Pyne and the whole LNP cheer squad will come up with, simply to sell you their ideology?)

    I'm sorry, but I don't buy any of their marketing ploys and sub-standard sales pitches. This is NOT about the people of Australia, nay: the world ! This is about THEM, wealth creation, unfettered greed and the maintenance of power. This is about plutocracy.

    Once again, as I did on 7 September 2013, I vote NO to the LNP and their utterly selfish rubbish.

    Commenter
    Jump
    Date and time
    June 18, 2014, 2:00AM

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