In Australia, summing up inequality is like mailing everyone a letter to voluntarily return… tricky and full of lots of moving parts. The ‘Australian Marriage Postal Survey’ is as oddly named as it is symbolic of inequality in Australia, a government of predominantly straight people deciding what is best for a minority. What is often manifest when looking at economic and cultural inequality (as discussed in this series) is political reaction. The commentary surrounding that at the moment is all about the minor party phenomena.
Historically, Australian voters have supported two major parties – the Labor Party and the Liberal Party of Australia. Labor believes government can play a positive role in people’s lives through policies like universal healthcare (Medicare), superannuation, university HECS, a social safety net etc. The LNP is more about small government staying out of people’s lives, out of business and economic markets. Both parties sway from these platforms from time to time (like the LNP mailing everyone a letter about a minority’s rights) but by and large Australians know what each party is about.
Recently, however an increasing number of voters have not supported either major party. 22.8% of voters backed parties other than Labor and the LNP at the last federal election, 1.8% more than the previous election. One Nation is the most obvious example of a minor party disrupting the majors, polling at 18% in Queensland. Nick Xenophon in South Australia is an analogous example, but to a lesser extent.
So why are people moving away from the parties they or their parents used to vote for? Well there is ever increasing commentary and research on the link between economic insecurity and the rise of populist, nationalist party support, like the Pauline Hanson One Nation (PHON) resurgence in Australia and the election of Donald Trump as leader of the free world. In the US, and to a lesser extent Australia, there is a group of people who don’t see immigration and global trade as being in their interests, prompting populist parties to adopt protectionist, nationalist stances in economies heavily tied to the global market.
Possibly the most cringe example of Pauline Hanson’s populist politics is her position on penalty rates (being paid slightly more on weekends and public holidays because we value those times to spend with family and loved ones). It used to be this:
"Get rid of penalty rates across the board" – Pauline Hanson"I agree that Sunday rates need to change" – Derryn Hinch Watch them say it.
Posted by ETU – The Electrical Trades Union on Thursday, 23 February 2017
Now, she supports penalty rates after ‘listening to the people’… Let’s be clear here – there is a difference between genuine consultation and chopping and changing your policies depending on how you feel that day or what you ‘thought’ the majority of Australians would support. As a former Liberal, it’s not surprising Pauline Hanson supported a cut in the pay of our lowest paid workers. But as soon as she realised people wouldn’t cop it, she reverted back to being the ‘battler for the workers’ as she has cleverly constructed, despite her anti-worker voting track record.
Another one she thinks a ‘silent majority’ of Australians support is her anti-immigrant, anti-burqa policies. Hanson will go from wearing a burqa in the parliament to blaming M1 traffic congestion on immigrants, rather than a lack of infrastructure and public transport planning. She’ll also tell loving adults to leave the country if they can’t get married here and that she doesn’t care what the rest of the world is doing. Make no mistake, this fuels social and cultural inequality on our TVs and radio stations, all the way down to our communities.
But when all the stunts, convoluted answers and backflips are laid bare, Hanson is tapping into a frustration felt by more and more everyday Australians – that the system is not working for them economically. People have turned to Hanson before and nothing changed, but they’re back again because she is and because they are stilling feeling the same pinch they did in 1996, if not more so.
As our look over the fence concludes, this is the last thing we will consider – what people’s voting intentions say about inequality being at a 75 year high. On the face of it, there is an (arguable) mass exodus from the major party narratives, in favour of those peddled by One Nation and others. This is because people are feeling locked out of the economy and are therefore living harder lives – and who has been behind the wheel of this downturn? The major parties of course.
But PHON is not the answer, there are others – for a later article. The take away here is that Australian politics at the moment point to inequality being at a 75 year high – why else would voters move away from the parties that have delivered for them and their parents in the past?
After looking at economic, cultural and political trends in Australia throughout this series, it is not hard to draw a distinction between falling wages at a 20 year low, cuts to penalty rates, increased casualisation, decreased union membership, increased company profits and a rise in inequality. Adding social issues like my right to marry and the electorate’s knee jerk, reactionary support of PHON, whether that be to send a message to the major parties or because they genuinely believe Hanson can do or change something, makes the story of inequality a strong one.
Experts aren’t united as to whether inequality is at a 75 year high, but they broadly agree that we are less equal than we were in the 1980s. They also agree that the disparity has been widening since. So, I can’t give you a neat summation on this big question, but I’m going to try to give you something close:
Wealth inequality has categorically gotten worse; income inequality is rising with flat wages; and the system allows disproportionate house prices to continue and penalty rates to be easily cut. The Government of the day is being dragged kicking and screaming on issues like marriage equality and energy policy and voters are increasingly turning to alternatives in Pauline Hanson. When taking all of this into account, it is generally accurate that inequality is at a 75 year high and that’s a scary thing for everyone.