Class inequality is not inevitable, and it’s not too late to change things here in Australia to promote a better experience for all.
In the second episode of its exploration of class inequality, Monash University’s podcast, What Happens Next?, asks the experts: How can we change things? How can we ensure that a diverse range of voices occupies equal weight in the halls of power and the rooms where decisions are made?
Dr Susan Carland talks to Monash Sustainable Development Institute’s John Thwaites AM about the political and economic decisions that must be made if we’re going to remedy class inequality for good.
Historian Tony Moore provides some additional context into Australia’s past relationship with the working class – a connection that informs the country to this day and may provide the key to a more equal tomorrow.
Journalist Rick Morton and author Bri Lee also return with insights into how improving the accessibility of resources like education, housing, and other necessities will have a positive knock-on effect for generations to come.
Dr Susan Carland: Welcome to part two in our look at class inequality. On today’s show, we will speak to our experts about class inequality in Australia. What are some of the ways we can help change class inequality? What new approaches do we need to consider to ensure we are hearing from a broad range of people in the most powerful places? Welcome to part two on this topic on What Happens Next?. John Thwaites is a professorial fellow at Monash University. He’s Chair of the Monash Sustainable Development Institute and ClimateWorks Australia. Professor John Thwaites, what do you think we need to do to try to improve it in Australia? If you could wave a magic wand now and try to sort out some of our class inequality, what would you do?
John Thwaites: There are a number of things. The first is to understand that this is not inevitable, class inequality. You sometimes hear people say, “Oh, it’s linked to globalisation or artificial intelligence.” Actually the thing that drives inequality more than anything is political decisions. Decisions about things like taxes. Who pays the taxes? Wages, whether wages are going to go up. Benefits, how benefits are paid. So there are clear political decisions that can be changed that will reduce inequality. I mean, tax is the classic example. In this country, like a number of others, we actually tax capital at a lower rate than income. So that means someone who’s on a very large income and can invest in shares and property ends up getting taxed at half the rate of a cleaner on $50,000 a year. So that’s the first thing. Our tax system needs to recognise that we should be aiming for equality, not inequality. And that means taxing more fairly. I also think our welfare system needs to be looked at. So once again, in the last 10 years, 15 years, we’ve gone backwards in some of our welfare areas, particularly unemployment benefits. Where 15, 20 years ago, the unemployment benefit was at about the poverty line, now it’s 30 per cent below the poverty line. So that’s a choice that we make as a community, and we could change that.
Dr Susan Carland: Why do you think we don’t?
John Thwaites: Well, I think because those who are benefiting have had the political power and they’ve been able to convince those in governments around the country to put the money in their area, not in the other.
I mean, the classic was the debate we had about franking credits before the last election. I find the idea that someone who makes a whole lot of money out of shares and then expects to get a cash payment for that extraordinary. While an average worker, as I say, a cleaner or something like that, a worker in a shop, is expected to pay full tax. So I think that’s another area.
I think the other big area that historically Australia has been proud of is to have high levels of employment, low levels of unemployment. But once again, in more recent years, we’ve got used to thinking that 5 per cent or 6 per cent is the right level. We should be targeting 3 per cent. Much lower levels of unemployment. That means that those people that have been long-term unemployed have more chances of getting a job. And we put more effort into skills, training up people rather than thinking that a level of unemployment’s a good thing because it keeps wages down.
So there’s a few things. One, our tax system. Second, to look at our welfare system and third, wages. To drive up wages through lower unemployment.
Dr Susan Carland: Here’s journalist and author Rick Morton. Imagine if we do change things right now. You can wave your magic wand and we finally start getting things right about class inequality in Australia. What does that society look like in 100 years?
Rick Morton: It looks like fairness. And here’s the thing. We think it’s just about money. And to a large degree, it is, right? There are studies where the best thing to help people out of poverty, believe it or not, is money. Just give them money. Don’t tell them how to spend it.
Dr Susan Carland: Not an Instagram post? That’s weird.
Rick Morton: Yeah. It’s not some antique or whatever. It’s just money, and it’s money without conditions because poor people… God, even the term I hate. But people like my family, we know how to spend money. We know how to make a dollar go around the world twice. It is a phenomenal bookkeeping ability that is there because you have to have it, right? But it’s also about the other things where we think, oh, okay. Well, we’ve got HECS for university, right? So you can just go to university and study and bang, there’s a job. A, there’s no guarantees because of the way the employment market works, but B, it’s not just about paying for the degree. Particularly if you move from a country town to a city where you have to go to a university and you don’t have money to pay your own rent, so you’ve got to work. And automatically now you’ve got a different playing field to people who actually live in the same city as their parents, and can stay at home while they study or get subsidised rent.
And so all of these little things actually make a huge difference. I dropped out of uni because I couldn’t hack it on so many different levels. And that was partly because of my classes. Partly because of my cultural access. It was partly because of my mental health, but I don’t have a degree because of it.
And so if we get these settings right, and if we have a true understanding, which can only come, by the way, from people who come from those backgrounds in the room, making decisions with people who have the power. It’s not just the case of saying, “All right, well we gave you HECS. Why aren’t you finished with your university?” Or, “You finished your degree, but why don’t you have a job?” It’s all the other attendant social forces that come with class and that cultural upbringing that you may or may not have.
But if you get those things right, then you actually live in a society and a country where people who have intellect, who have ideas, who have really stunning things to contribute to the world can actually contribute them. Some of the smartest people I’ve ever met have been in public housing. Just real tinkerers and thinkers and philosophers who, for whatever reason, have been kept in place. And some of them seemed happy enough in those circumstances, but others I knew for sure should have been able to do more.
Dr Susan Carland: Rick Morton, thank you so much for your time today.
Rick Morton: Thanks for having me, Susan. I appreciate it.
Dr Susan Carland: Tony Moore is a historian whose work has included researching the Australian working class – how they see themselves and express themselves, and their impact on national identity. Historian, Professor Tony Moore.
Tony Moore: My key expertise – interest – is in the area of culture and the different ways class relations produce inequality in culture, but also…