A common sight in most countries, beggars remain relatively rare in Australia. Photo: Michael Rayner
I have vivid memories of my first trip overseas. I was 23 and decided to travel to India. It shocked and, at times, scared the hell out of me. I loved it.
Yet, from that first journey, I think back on one moment – a brief conversation – more often than the others. I visited a family in northern India I’d known from Sydney. One of the children, aged 15, was studying for exams and was physically sick with anxiety. For years, her days and nights had been structured around achieving the grades needed to enter a good college. When I asked what would happen if she didn’t, she said: ‘‘I must.’’ When I laughed at what I assumed was her melodramatics, she replied, very seriously: ‘‘This isn’t Australia: there’s no second chance.’’
Two chances? We get so many more. I left school and, soon afterwards, home, before I finished year 10. It didn’t take me long to realise that unskilled labour made for an unsatisfactory life, especially on junior wages. Some weeks, I found no work; I needed state aid to get by. I was back at school 18 months later; again, with some help from the government. If I’d been born elsewhere, I might not have had that extra throw of the die. Nor was it my last.
We must never forget how lucky we are in this country. We make mistakes and our society is forgiving enough to allow us to learn from them. Australia isn’t unique in this regard: the state intervenes in all social democracies to help those who are struggling. The United States, too, hails itself as a land of opportunity – of not holding people’s backgrounds or failings against them – even if its citizens lack the welfare aid available to the rest of the Western world.
Yet Australia’s commitment to egalitarianism historically goes beyond other countries’. We’re not a big-taxing, big-spending society; indeed, we’re the sixth-lowest-taxing nation in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
It’s what we do with public money that’s different. Last year, the University of NSW’s Professor Peter Whiteford showed that Australia redistributed more income to the poorest fifth of its population than almost every other nation. Whiteford said we had ‘‘the most ‘target-efficient’ system of social security benefits of any OECD country’’.
‘‘For each dollar of spending on benefits, our system reduces income inequality by about 50 per cent more than the US, Denmark or Norway, twice as much as Korea, 2½ times as much as Japan or Italy, and three times as much as France.’’
That is, we spend less on welfare than other wealthy countries do, but we’re more likely to spend it on the genuinely needy, thanks to means-testing and other policies.
The Economist magazine, in a special report last year, also commented on how egalitarianism shapes our attitudes. It noted Australians’ ‘‘relative absence of conspicuous consumption (and, it has to be said, a certain lack of style in everyday dress); the evident democracy of the beach and the park; the practice of passenger and driver sitting side by side in taxis; [and] the general amiability of discourse’’.
This may have been written with a hint of an Oxbridge sneer, but I doubt we’d care if it was. We pride ourselves on being a nation of levellers.
Yet most of this progress, which is core to our identify, was won in the past. Today, we have fewer reasons to pat ourselves on the back. Income inequality – the difference between the wealthy and the poor’s share of national income – has been rising since the early 1980s. Our attitudes towards the jobless are hardening and our support is becoming less generous.
In 2009, the Henry tax review recommended an overhaul of unemployment benefits, noting how far they had fallen behind payments such as the pension. Last year’s tax summit also pressed for an increase. Business lobby groups said the jobless needed more money to prepare themselves to rejoin the workforce. Nothing happened.
This week, a National Centre for Economic and Social Modelling report said a typical household that relied on unemployment benefits in 2009-10 had just $22 a day to spare after paying for shelter, electricity, food and healthcare. By comparison, pensioners had twice as much disposable income, and the rest of us, on average, had more than 15 times as much. Church groups say Australia’s jobless are often so poor they skip meals and can’t afford the haircut, clothes or transport that may help them win back employment.
How do we feel about this? I suspect many of us don’t feel anything. The bipartisan approach to ‘‘fixing’’ endemic mass unemployment among Northern Territory Aborigines, for example, is to implicitly blame them; we demand they work for the dole, even though many live in communities in which jobs are a dream. Mutual obligation is a positive policy, but not when we only apply it to those who are bound to fail its test.
Australia’s biggest-selling newspaper, Melbourne’s Herald Sun, is confident it understands the public mood on this issue. It ran a huge front-page headline last week: ‘‘Bludgers for life’’. The story? ‘‘Scores of Victorians have been on the dole for more than 20 years, sucking millions of dollars from taxpayers’ pockets.’’
That’s right: ‘‘scores’’ of people – in other words, just one in every 35,000 Victorians. That’s good news, right? Yet the newspaper editorialised: ‘‘People should not be allowed to be paid the dole indefinitely to do nothing ... It shouldn’t go to prop up the lazy lifestyles of those who have no intention of ever working again, yet continue to see getting the dole as their right.’’
We are yielding what once made our country unique, even great. As trite as the cliched ‘‘land of the fair go’’ sounds, at least it was founded in some truths. Every derisive glance we throw at the jobless, the underemployed or the otherwise unfortunate, we lose part of what it means to be Australian; we become more like everyone else.
This is not only a question of morality. We also face a steep economic challenge this century to remain more than simply China and India’s quarry. Our current advantages in education and innovation will fade unless we get the most out of our population – all of it. Some Australians will need a little extra help to find their feet; to find a role that fits. We must continue to give them genuine second, third, fourth and further chances.
We have too few people to waste.