Australia’s growing scourge of inequality

Our egalitarian image today is seriously tarnished, thanks to governments getting into bed with big business. [14 April 2015 | Peter Boyer]

To find out what’s wrong in society, prisons are a good place to start looking. Signs from that quarter tell us that Australia is in trouble.

Risdon Prison near Hobart. PHOTO ABC

Risdon Prison near Hobart. PHOTO ABC

Research by Mirko Bagaric, dean of law at Deakin University, and a Deakin colleague, Athula Pathinayake (to be published soon in the Australian Bar Review), finds a strong rising trend in Australia’s prison population.

Writing for The Conversation last week, Bagaric pointed out that 90 years ago Australia held 52 people in prison for every 100,000 of its adult population. Today’s figure is 3.6 times higher than that, at 186 per 100,000 people.

This is better than the situation in the US, where prisons hold over 700 people in 100,000. But it’s way above all other comparable countries such as Canada, and at an average of $80,000 a year to house each prisoner (over double the US cost) it’s a huge financial burden.

Australia’s prisons are full because politicians and media, exploiting public concerns, call for tougher sentencing laws and pressure judges and magistrates to “lock ’em up” regardless of individual circumstances. That may be popular, but as Bagaric points out it’s also dumb.

Prisons are where we put people we want to be separated from. Along with refugee camps and immigration detention centres (and from the opposite perspective, gated communities), they’re a potent symbol of social inequality, one sign among many that inequality is growing.

Inequality can’t be stamped out, but uncontained it will eventually make its presence felt. The longer it’s neglected the more damaging the outcome: witness the bloody revolutions of history.

Every so often world leaders give a nod to the issue. In signing the Millennium Declaration in 2000 they declared that equality between nations and individuals would be a fundamental value of international relations in the new century.

The Millennium Declaration was one thing, reality was another. A 2013 UN report, Inequality Matters, found “worsening inequalities across and within many countries… potent sources of social tension, fertile ground for political and civil unrest, instability and heightened human insecurity”.

People who in other times might be a valuable resource for their country or community are forced to the margins, living hand-to-mouth. Sometimes they end up in prison, their living costs met from taxes paid largely by disaffected masses outside. A hopeless conundrum.

It can’t help matters when marginalised people learn that the average pay of senior executives is about 150 times average weekly earnings, as it is now in Australia, and the amassed wealth of our country’s seven richest individuals is greater than the total wealth of our poorest 4½ million.

We can dispute this, as government members of a Senate committee did last December when they downplayed the importance of income inequality and said that a functioning economy and a good education would deliver equality across society.

But this is quibbling. Income equality does matter because it’s the tip of an iceberg, the sign of a widespread and persistent problem that is already diminishing the effectiveness of government and could eventually threaten its viability.

Ideology is so pervasive in today’s public discourse that it’s difficult to discuss anything without the right-left divide being raised. For instance, the science of global warming is in some quarters seen as a left-wing conspiracy, at which point the debate gets silly.

Discussing social inequality is sure to attract accusations of left-wing bias, yet historically it’s been a concern of leaders of all political shades, from John Howard to Julia Gillard. Politicians in a democracy know their careers depend on being seen to support the battlers.

But in truth they don’t; not today at least. Since the 1970s governments have been handing over power to big corporations. Now they’re pretty much in bed together. Voters see this, hence the revolving door of recent elections.

Last week we had treasurer Joe Hockey and a Senate committee berating flustered executives of Apple, Google, BHP-Billiton and other major companies because (surprise, surprise) they avoid paying corporate tax here by sending money to offshore tax havens.

Corporations that pay tax at 1 per cent when ordinary people are charged up to 45 per cent are unethical, but why should we expect otherwise? Corporations are inherently selfish, focused on their own survival and enrichment. In the final analysis ethics don’t get a look in.

But we have every reason to expect governments to be ethical, to stand apart from big business and when necessary to act against it in the public interest. That’s a separation we really do need. We’re not getting it, and we’re paying a high price.

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