Leigh, Andrew: Why corporate Australia should care about inequality – Speech, Minerals Council of Australia Tax Conference, Friday 10 March 2017

Andrew Leigh

Why corporate Australia should care about inequality – Speech, Minerals Council of Australia Tax Conference, Friday 10 March 2017‘, Andrew Leigh MP Blog, 10 March 2017 updated

Over the past generation [says Leigh], Australia has seen an increase in inequality on every meaningful measure: wages have risen three times as fast for the top tenth (people such as financial dealers and anaesthetists) as for the bottom tenth (people such as apprentices and hairdressers); the income share of the top 1 percent has doubled, and the top 0.1 percent share has tripled; there has been a marked rise in wealth inequality, with the top three Australians now having as much wealth as the poorest one million. Compared with other countries in the advanced world, Australia isn’t the most unequal. But we are among the upper third for inequality in the OECD.

Corporate Australia should care about inequality for these reasons: inequality means less wellbeing; high levels of inequality lead to instability; ‘more unequal societies tend to be less socially mobile’. Leigh then goes on to talk about company taxation, weekend penalty rates, and the tax issues surrounding housing affordability. He is disappointed in the lack of interest in inequality in recent policy proposals from business groups.

This speech builds on Leigh’s earlier work in Battlers and Billionaires: The Story of Inequality in Australia and in other places which Honest History has collected here and here. The Honest History Book (out in April) includes a chapter from Carmen Lawrence: ‘”Fair go” nation? Egalitarian myth and reality in Australia’. Lawrence addresses a similar range of issues to Leigh. Inequality has been one of Honest History’s ‘special subjects’ because of the growing gap between Australia’s historical egalitarian values and current realities; see the collection here. Update 20 June 2018: Leigh comes back to the subject in 2018 in this piece in Inside Story.

Finally, and serendipitously, Peter Whiteford, ANU economist specialising in inequality, writes in Inside Story about ‘the enduring power of welfare myths’, particularly those to do with ‘them’ and ‘us’. The article is particularly relevant, not just to Leigh’s speech, but also to the current arguments about alleged Centrelink fraud. ‘Despite the evidence that deliberate fraud is a tiny fraction of social security spending’, says Whiteford, ‘it remains a mainstay of much reporting of welfare in the Australian media’. He analyses reporting in the Daily Telegraph, the Adelaide Advertiser, and The Australian, all from the Murdoch stable. He concludes:

When some news media talk about welfare, they give the impression that “them” are members of a group of people who stay dependent for all of their lives. But this group is tiny – and very disadvantaged. Between the majority who need social security benefits at some time in their lives and the tiny minority who need it all the time lie many complex patterns of social security use reflecting the complexity of people’s lives.

David Stephens

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