Privilege begets privilege when elites are first in the queue

When my eldest had just turned 14, I used my privilege.

Our family did most of its shopping in the local supermarket - at that stage, I hadn’t hardened in my loathing of the Big Two but I shopped slightly more expensively because it actually took less time.

So, pinging through the checkout with my vast shop, I said to Michael: ''Hey Michael, I notice you employ school-age children in part-time jobs. When my daughter is old enough, would you mind thinking of her as a possible employee?''

That question happened at the exact time I zinged up a couple of hundred bucks. Michael said he’d be happy to consider her. Lo and behold, she got a part-time job which she kept up until she hit year 12. She passed her job on to her little sister who passed her job on to her little brother.

These days, my kids get their own jobs, although if I can give them a hand I will. I would certainly make a phone call on their behalf (although they usually tell me that any call I make would hinder, rather than help).

There is not a parent on this earth who wouldn’t help their kids to make the most of opportunities. Help to get a scholarship? Yes, no worries. Help to get the best possible job they can get? Sure.


News this week about the incredible success of Louise and Frances Abbott has met with fury. Frances was awarded a chairman’s scholarship at the Whitehouse Institute of Design. Louise has a job at the Australian embassy, headed by former Coalition staffer Peter Woolcott, in Geneva, just two years out of university. I’m sure Frances and Louise are terrific women but Louise only finished her degree a couple of years ago and I don’t think anyone else in her cohort appears to have an international posting yet.

So, what’s the problem? People seem to think that the Prime Minister helped his daughters get that privileged access.

And my answer is: ''Don’t be so ridiculous.'' He didn’t need to help.

The Abbott daughters have what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called social capital. These days, we are more likely to call it privilege – but it's the social connectedness of the upper classes and the power elites that make scholarships and postings miraculously appear.

Why are we angry? As executive dean of the faculty of Business and Enterprise at Swinburne University of Technology Michael Gilding told me: ''Our social ideal is about being self-made, about earning through your own efforts and your own merit.''

He’s dead right. That’s one of the reasons we got so mad about Frances and Louise and I have absolutely no doubt that someone, somewhere, is going through Bridget Abbott’s school and employment record right now.

Think that's tough on the daughters? I hate the way they’ve been exposed and I can’t imagine how Mrs Abbott feels about it. But in Australia, this is the price you pay for flaunting your privilege in the face of a generation of aspiring public servants, in the face of the young men and women who could never afford to go to an elite private fashion college. Yes, of course the Abbott daughters are adults and must make their own decisions but they - and those around them - need to be mindful of the enormous gifts their father's status gives them. Politicians should be as transparent as glass and less fragile.

How shocking that Mr Abbott’s minders did not blink at what can only seem like the perks of public life - but that’s probably because in the circles in which they move, privilege is what they live and breathe. It doesn’t worry them because it’s part of their everyday experience. A good job. A good school. There is no need for winks and nods because this smooth traverse is what happens for the elites.

Inherited privilege is endemic in Australia. We have a higher proportion of private schools than other developed counties - and parents see that as a way to leverage privilege and power, to replicate their own lives and improve their children’s position. We say we want self-made but we send our children to private schools to optimise their opportunities in life.*

''We have a lot of double thinking around this,'' says Gilding. ''There’s a fair degree of social hypocrisy around privilege.''

It will of course get worse for young people whose families don’t have the connections. Education was one of the silver bullets for Australians - and it had the capacity to make change in families in a way which transformed lives. That will be gone now. How nauseating were those managers from the sandstone universities who agreed to swig at the trough of the wealthy? Now a few are clapping their hands to their foreheads and imagining what it will be like to have debts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars: ''What about the disadvantaged?''

That sympathy, that feigned concern? Too late. Too little, too late.

As Gilding says, the changes to fees will restrict social mobility. All the more spots for the wealthy and connected. They won’t even have to make a call. Employing the children of the rich and powerful is a capital idea.

 Twitter @jennaprice or email

* Yes, yes. One of my own children went to a private school. I’m still recovering.