This week’s path: ethic is by guest blogger, Michael Lloyd. Michael is a retired farmer, an Anglican deacon and is currently completing his Bachelor of Arts at the University of Western Australia.
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Australians have always seen themselves as an egalitarian mob. From the time Europeans arrived in 1788 to establish a penal colony, they saw a classless society as desirable – none of the old English class system for us! We expected from, and gave to, everyone the benefit of doubt – a Fair go, Mate! And from this evolved the ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’, whereby anyone who considered themselves a ‘bit above their neighbours’ was ‘taken down a peg or two’ – the tall poppy cut down! It seemed the attitude was that if you had done exceptionally well in an undertaking, you had probably cheated at best or broken the law at worst.
In 1907, this sentiment of ‘Fair Go’ was tested in the famous Harvester Judgement, a case which came before the Conciliation and Arbitration Court. The Australian Government had determined that if an employer paid his workers a fair wage, he would be exempt from an excise. Hugh Victor McKay – the manufacturer of the Sunshine Harvester – considered the 1 pound 16 shillings per week (6 shillings per day) he paid his workers a fair wage, and so applied for an exemption. However, a newly-appointed President of the Court, Mr Justice Higgins, decided to test McKay’s ‘fair wage’, to see if it was the actual cost of living for a man, his wife and three children. After taking evidence from workers, he determined this to be 2 pounds and 2 shillings per week (7 shillings per day), and so began Australia’s Basic Wage system that continues to the present in different guises.
But it doesn’t stop there. A social security system to assist people in need was also established, funded by a taxation system, on the basis of the more you earned the more you paid.
The knowledge that children cost money to feed and clothe gave us Child Benefits, now Family Tax benefits. Also developed were widows’ pensions, to support those affected by the loss of a family breadwinner and assistance for children of pensioners. In recognition that sometimes workers will be unemployed, payments were available for them, as well as sickness benefits. Disabled people, from whatever cause were seen as in need of assistance as were the elderly, who had paid taxes all their lives and should be able to see out the declining years in relative comfort.
The system provided Equity – for both people with a similar need and for the community as a whole through the progressive taxation system; Effectiveness – to achieve the aims of the programmes; Employment – with the minimum (basic) wage and unemployment benefits, sick leave, workers’ compensation for those injured at work and long service leave to reflect loyalty; Efficiency – in that the programmes generally delivered benefits to those in most need; and Economy – in a most cost-effective manner.
Over the years since 1907, the social security system evolved, with consolidation in some areas such as family and child benefits and in employment as the system was streamlined. In addition to that evolution was the basic ideologies of the two main political streams, with the conservatives generally favouring restrictions and the Labor party more likely to improve access to assistance.
Following 23 years of unbroken conservative government from 1949, which seemed to have grown ‘tired’ with five separate conservative Prime Ministers from 1965 to 1972, the election of the Whitlam Labor (liberal) government in 1972, with its catchy “It’s Time!” slogan, heralded an impetus for social change. In an effort to improve the lives of many Australians, Whitlam introduced changes to migration (the end of the White Australia policy and an emphasis on multiculturalism), Aboriginal welfare (moves towards self-determination and Land Rights), family law (with the Family Law Act, better assistance), and more realistic support for the unemployed and disadvantaged, including the disabled.
Whitlam’s Government also ended Australia’s involvement in the unpopular Vietnam War and ended conscription which had been introduced in 1962 to supply additional troops for that war. In 1973, diplomatic relations were established with the People’s Republic of China.
Many of these issues had been ignored by the previous conservative governments and the changes struck a chord with the Australian people. However, perhaps the changes were too rapid for some and following high unemployment, high inflation and high interest rates, Whitlam’s Government was defeated in 1975. The period from 1975 to 2013 was evenly divided between conservative and Labor governments, with often subtle changes to welfare with each change – for example, purchasing rates of the different government assistance declining slightly during periods of conservative government, only to be restored by the next Labor government.
But how things changed with the new conservative government’s Budget in 2014!
In an endeavour to panic the Australian people into accepting stifling slashes to welfare because of a ‘so-called’ Budget Emergency, they massively reduced assistance to the needy while imposing a modest temporary ‘levy’ on high income earners. Unemployed youth would be denied assistance for six months – so how would they survive? It’s not as if there is zero unemployment! The previously free visit to a doctor, have a blood test or X-ray would now attract a $7 charge for each service – great for the single parent with several children! Whitlam’s free tertiary education would come under more pressure with higher fees and with government student loans charged at higher compounding interest rates, would effectively deter some students from lower income families from attending university. A carbon tax to be changed to an emission trading system was scrapped so that the government now has no climate change policy and is keen to dismantle the renewable energy industry in Australia and its 50,000 strong workforce.
While these are only a few of the changes envisaged, the pattern is obvious – take money from the poor to support the rich, sort of a ‘reverse Robin Hood’! Commentators have calculated that lower income families will lose up to 17% of their disposable income, while the better-off will lose 1%.
Doesn’t look like a fair go to me, mate!