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  14 February 2014

Time to start a new national conversation on inequality


"Extreme economic inequality is damaging and worrying for many reasons: it is morally questionable; it can have negative impacts on economic growth and poverty reduction; and it can multiply social problems. It compounds other inequalities, such as those between women and men. In many countries, extreme economic inequality is worrying because of the pernicious impact that wealth concentrations can have on equal political representation. When wealth captures government policy making, the rules bend to favor the rich, often to the detriment of everyone else. The consequences include the erosion of democratic governance, the pulling apart of social cohesion, and the vanishing of equal opportunities for all.
From the Oxfam Briefing Paper to the Davos World Economic Forum, January 2014.

In Australia we talk about ourselves as a country where the fair go prevails, but is it still true? And does it matter? 

Australia21 and The Australia Institute convened a roundtable at Parliament House in Canberra on 31 January to consider the question “What should be done about growing Australian inequality?”  The Parliamentary host was Dr Andrew Leigh, Shadow Assistant Treasurer, and the thirty-five participants comprised senior government, non-government, academic, and community stakeholders, including five Parliamentarians. In open dialogue they considered evidence that, in the past 20 years, the benefits of economic growth have flowed disproportionately to the rich and that there is now a widening gulf between those in the upper and those in the lower 20% of Australia’s wealth distribution. This gulf is already among the widest in the Western world though still less than that in the United States.

Without pre-empting the report of the roundtable, planned for release in March, we can tell you you that one of the strong themes that emerged from the roundtable was the need for a new 'national conversation' about inequality in Australia. While we could not invite each one of you to participate in the roundtable we thought you might be interested in a small sample of  the material provided to participants as background. We hope you may find information here that will encourage you to start that new conversation with the people around you. 
  • Working for the Few - Political Capture and Economic Inequality.  Oxfam Briefing Paper 178 January, 2014. While some economic inequality is essential to drive growth and progress, rewarding those with talent, hard work and skills and the ambition to innovate and take entrepreneurial risks. However, the extreme levels of wealth concentration occurring today threaten to exclude hundreds of millions of people and their economies  from realising the benefits of their talents and hard work.
  • Social Policies for Tougher Times. The 32nd Sambell Oration for the Brotherhood of St Laurence was delivered in late 2013 by Professor Paul Smyth of the University of Melbourne. The oration focussed on the idea of inclusive growth which begins with the notion of welfare as investment and points the way towards a long sought reintegration of economic and social policy goals. Rigorously applied social policies, he says, must not be dismissed as wasteful entitlements. Instead, they should be seen as sound investments in employment and productivity which show how economic reforms will translate into a better society for all. 
  • Unfair economic arrangements make us sick”. This was the discussion paper commissioned by Australia21 for the roundtable prepared by Professor Sharon Friel from ANU and Dr Richard Denniss from The Australia Institute.
If you would like to read more, try the following:
  • "The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future" by Joseph Stieglitz
  • "Battlers and Billionaires. The Story of Inequality in Australia" by Andrew Leigh 
  • "The Spirit Level. Why Equality is Better for Everyone" by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. 
We encourage you to find out more and to take your part in the national conversation about the impact of growing inequality in Australia and what could/should be done about it. How we handle this matter in the immediate future is likely to have profound effects on Australian life in the coming decades.

This project is supported by the Reichstein Foundation, The Social Justice Fund and the ACT Government.

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