Every so often chance and circumstance carve a benchmark by which the measure of change can be calculated, if not always understood. The transit of Venus across the sun, which drew Captain Cook, was one such moment, signifying as it did the Enlightenment’s arrival in a quarter of the world benighted in its palm-fringed isolation by savagery and ignorance. Apologies to Rousseau and his latter-day romantics, but that’s a fact.
Today, perhaps, comes another such milestone. It is word from the OECD that, unlike the majority of nations, equality is going great guns in Australia. Cook’s astronomers saw their observations muffled by adverse weather, but at least they peered through the eyepiece and tried their best to understand what was going on. Surprise will be the least of it if those who speak for the serried ranks of our Caring-Industrial Complex deign to acknowledge this quite remarkable OECD announcement with anything more than selective reporting and, inevitably, contemptuous dismissal.
Taken by surprise? Well, yes, practitioners of the caring arts will have been, and one would hope very much embarrassed as well: surprised that the truth has slipped out, embarrassed that for so long the party line has been of Australia being a case study in galloping disparity.
Ask Google if “inequality is growing in Australia” and what turns up is both a compendium of rote misery and a Q&A talent-booker’s delight – a legion of do-good hanky-wringers and organisations that can be counted on to muster mobs of “the disempowered” (sometimes, for variety, “the disenfranchised”) whenever a spare segment of the TV news cries out for toothless wretches, irresponsible drug users, profligate breeders and a sampling of the infantalised adults from Centrelink’s crèche never likely to be weaned from welfare’s teat.
They have all been in on the scam, the compassionista bodies that make “the inequality” their philosopher’s stone in any plea for additional public funding. Take the Australian Psychological Association (APA), for instance, which late last year was one of many groups and individuals to file voluminous submissions with the Senate committee investigating “the extent of income inequality in Australia” — a mission as stated that rather gives the game away. The APA tendered page after page of social-justice boilerplate, but the entire document reduces to the excerpt below. Rather than read the paragraph as such, treat it as a big flash card and focus only on the key words. As the maunderings of social-justice advocates are apt to make the eyes glaze over, some of the important ones have been highlighted for easy recognition.
Those “initiatives” and “specific strategies” are the bread and sustenance of “community capacity” builders, not to mention architects of the equally amorphous “wellbeing”. This is the fuzzy and buzzy lingua franca of caring, middle-class souls whose careers (and mortgages) depend absolutely on a pool of misery they must tirelessly insist is forever growing larger. To get ahead in the compassion game, one must never miss the chance to remind those who foot the bills that others aren’t (even if, as the OECD has concluded, they are).
In this respect, the welfare wallahs pitching their services have been sucker-punched not once but twice, the OECD’s praise being the second unexpected blow. The first was the SBS two-parter Struggle Street, whose voyeuristic safari through Mt Druitt was unintentionally redeemed by a quite surprising portrait of bottom-rung “poverty”. This was squalor? Surely not! The houses were nice enough, their yards for the most part clean. An aerial shot could not hide the blue gleam of backyard swimming pools, nor the swathes of open space and playgrounds. Fresh meat on the BBQ, motorbikes and lawn mowers, cars that were adequate and in some cases quite nice indeed. To the outsider on his or her couch, someone who knew Mt Druitt only from news stories of crime, dysfunction and magistrates’ remarks at sentencing, it came as a revelation.
As the show made abundantly clear, there is nothing wrong with the area’s housing or amenities, a point Nick Cater noted in charting Mt Druitt’s three-decade descent. The problem is with its residents or, more particularly, the incentives that consign so many to the helpless penury of publicly funded hopelessness. If you smoke ice in job lots, front judges and probation officers more often than job interviewers, can it be any wonder if your life ends up in the toilet?
We heard all about “the inequality” – did we ever! — in the days after Struggle Street went to air, the outraged decibels cranked up as if to drown out any thought that, all things considered, a heavily pregnant woman’s greater enthusiasm for the bong than family planning might just have something to do with her predicament. It seems all that expensive “community building” and “empowerment” hasn’t done much good at all, and it is reasonable to assume that many viewers would have concluded that further sums of public monies will finance only the pursuit of diminishing returns.
If you are in the business of dispensing succour this is a dangerous and threatening thought.
Shadow assistant treasurer Dr Andrew Leigh, turning up the volume to 11, bleated no more loudly than most after taking in Struggle Street, but his comments distilled to its pithy essence the caring class’s communal outrage at an unwanted truth revealed. Australia should be up in arms, he told the Sydney Morning Herald, about “the presence of such deep and entrenched inequality in a prosperous country”. Struggle Street, he continued, warming to a familiar theme, “portrayed the gap that has opened up in our community in recent decades, and showed just how far some have fallen behind as Australia’s richest have raced ahead.”
Well he would say that, wouldn’t he? Expect Dr Leigh’s comments on the OECD’s refutation of his talking points to be considerably more muted.
Given the institutional inertia weighed against reforms that might stop good money being thrown after bad, we can anticipate that the OECD’s glowing appraisal of equality in Australia will be stuffed down the memory hole. If you are a lazy typical reporter, it is always easier to engage in some quick stenography with a quote-worthy contact, so we are bound to see a spate of post-Struggle Street reminders that “the inequality” is an expanding cancer. Indeed, that sermonising is well underway, courtesy of the usual suspects.
But at least the OECD report will have some good company in its soon-to-be obscurity. Never mentioned amid all those pleas for additional funding is the work the organisation has done on special low-tax/tax-free economic zones and the businesses and jobs they develop. This link leads to one such study and it also prompts a proposition: How much improvement might we see, how far might “the inequality” be redressed, if a large slice of the cash now represented by the area’s welfare payments was put instead into tax breaks for entrepreneurs, industries and workers prepared to set up shop in Mt Druitt? There is much less opportunity to become careless and pregnant if you skip that breakfast bong and report to work instead, a fact that prompts the further thought that a few more dollars for pro-active policing would not go astray either.
James Cook’s scientists, having failed in their astronomical mission, went on to make some quite useful discoveries, the east coast of Australia amongst them. What a pity if the inevitable eruption of poor-me sob stories in reaction to the OECD’s praise for Australia’s unexpected equality were to foil further exploration of the ways in which we might do even better, improve upon the happy benchmark the OECD has now set. But it will, of course it will. Much better that Mt Druitt’s proles stay as they are, rather than a single “community builder”, inequality spotter, social engineer or garden-variety poverty pimp lose his or her job.
After all, those caring sorts are different. They just shape Mt Druitt’s demographic fate; they don’t actually have to live there.
Roger Franklin is the editor of Quadrant Online