A Renaissance In The Fight Against Equality


The recent mass rallies for unionism and the Yes victory in the marriage equality survey may represent a pivotal moment in the reversal of inequalities in Australia, writes Senator Lee Rhiannon.

Let’s take the first.

There can be little argument that income and wealth inequality has worsened in recent decades. With real wages stagnant or declining and profits soaring – up by 40 per cent last year – the gap is widening. Australia’s income inequality is the 12th highest among the 35 OECD (or most developed) nations.

As for wealth inequality, there is no argument whatsoever that it has grown enormously in the past decade. In 2005-06 the wealth of Australia’s richest 10 per cent was 35 times that of the poorest 10 per cent; in 2015-16 it was 45 times.

Revelation such as the ‘Paradise Papers’ indicate that estimates of the income and wealth of the ultra-rich are grossly underestimated, so even the best estimates of the ABS that I am quoting here are certainly underestimates.

An even more glaring indicator of inequality is the fact that the wages share of Australia’s national income has now dropped below 47 per cent. For comparison purposes it was as high as 63 per cent during the Whitlam years from 1972 to 1975.

Those years were the high-water mark of the post-war upswing towards more equality in capitalist democracies. This was due to the creation of welfare states by political labour parties, the strength of unions and the Cold War concern of business that communist ideas should not gain a foothold in the West.

When those forces waned or were defeated in the 1980s, the whole process of rising equality went into reverse.

Hopefully we are now at another inflection point. Judging from Thursday’s union rallies, the advent of new unions like the Retail and Fast Food Workers’ Union, and the arrival of Sally McManus as an outspoken ACTU secretary, we may be on the threshold of a revival of the union movement. With the Greens and the Labor Party showing both a renewed interest in reversing gross inequalities and abandoning neoliberalism, there is some basis for optimism as far as economic equality is concerned.

As for the same sex marriage victory, its impact can be on other dimensions of inequality. After all there is more to the egalitarian good life than what is in our pay packets or bank accounts. All kinds of inequalities matter if they are a barrier to human flourishing.

Clearly inequalities associated with gender, sexual preference, age, location and disability can stunt the life chances of people.

Denial of equal rights to the LGBTIQ communities has clearly been one of those inequalities. But now we have something to cheer. After decades of campaigning, homophobia and denial of equality have just received a decisive rebuff.


Other similar inequalities are the subject of similar campaigns and can only be heartened by the equal marriage success.

I am thinking here of the mass incarceration of Aboriginal youth and the return of the phenomenon of ‘stolen children’ which are being challenged by Indigenous communities across the continent.

Women too continue to suffer from entrenched inequality. The gap between average male and female wages remains stubbornly above 20 per cent. Sexual harassment and domestic violence against women likewise remain ubiquitous. For young people, the spread of precarious work and the unaffordability of housing represent a rise in intergenerational inequality.

All these battles have yet to be won.

The work of Nobel laureate and University of Chicago economist James Heckman has been important in focusing us on the reality that unequal prenatal and early childhood environments have a determining effect on what happens in later life. At the age of three a child of a professional family uses 50 per cent more words than a working class child and twice as many as a poor child.

It’s not a matter of smarter people having smarter children. As Heckman tells us on the basis of an intensive review of the research, genetic inheritance has been “exaggerated in many studies and in popular discussions”. “Early life environments are important,” he concludes, “for explaining a variety of diverse outcomes such as crime, health, education, occupation, social engagement, trust and voting.” Some of these outcomes can be partially reversed later in life but “there is no evidence of full recovery from initial disadvantage”.

In other words, children born into disadvantaged circumstances stay disadvantaged. Inequality is a lifetime sentence.

Finally, I don’t think we can avoid thinking about global inequality.

The mean national income in the US or Australia is nearly 200 times that of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to former head economist at the World Bank, Branko Milanovic. The chances of survival of a baby born in countries like the Congo are less than half those born in a Western country.

Such inequalities are sobering and Australia’s response in terms of continuous cuts to foreign aid is scandalous. Creating an egalitarian society in Australia is arguably small beer compared to the global challenges we face. Sadly on both fronts Australia still lags but recent political developments are truly grounds for hope.


Lee Rhiannon, a former Greens Senator, has visited Palestinian refugee camps in the Middle East. Her three trips to the region were self-funded.