Ed#471: Some are more equal than others...

10 November 2014 Alan Attwood

Ed#471: Some are more equal than others...

It would be good to be writing about something different; good to believe there was no need to address the topic of inequality again. We’ve been down this road before – in October 2011 with ‘The Great Divide’, and then early last year, when we had Australia’s wealthiest person, Gina Rinehart, on the cover as a way into the topic of philanthropy. Ms Rinehart, incidentally, never did respond to that edition. Still, I’d like to think she saw it: there are wonderful vendors in Perth, where she is based, and – oh yes – we even mailed her some copies. Twenty-one months on, she is still Australia’s wealthiest person; still on Forbes’ annual list of the world’s billionaires. And every year, it seems, the gulf between the very rich and very poor grows bigger. The global charity Oxfam has calculated that the ranks of the super-rich have swelled: from 793 billionaires in 2009 to 1645 in March this year. Last year it also suggested that the world’s richest 85 people controlled the same amount of wealth as half the world’s population. This is a startling statistic. And therein lies the Great Divide – inequality of wealth, inequality of opportunity.

Former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam died as we began preparing this edition. He was, and is, a polarising figure; debate continues about his time as PM. But he had a clear sense of what he wanted to achieve: in his 1972 policy speech, he used the words ‘equality’ or ‘inequality’ 17 times. Reforms in healthcare and education were rooted in his conviction that such things should be accessible to everyone, not just a privileged few.

But Whitlam’s death was a coincidence; the reason we are revisiting the theme of inequality is the G20 summit, which will bring central Brisbane to a standstill (and, incidentally, make things very difficult for many of our vendors) in the middle of this month. World leaders – including President Barack Obama, who has expressed his concern about growing income disparities in the US – will meet at a time when, finally, there is broadening acceptance that the existing trend has disastrous implications. On the eve of publication it was reported that Rupert Murdoch, the most influential Australian-born US citizen, recently addressed a G20-related meeting in Washington and warned of a “great global reckoning” because of inequality. Policies had tended to help those who already have assets, Murdoch said, while “the lack of any real wage increase for middle-income workers means growing societal divisions and resentment”. Much of the commentary on his speech has also addressed middle-income earners. Because of the people we represent, the disadvantaged, our focus is on those at the other end of the scale to the super-rich. But Murdoch’s intervention in this debate is welcome, not least because he has pointed to a lack of opportunities for younger people today and warned of “inevitable social and political upheavals”.

There’s also some irony here. Because one solution to asset disparity is for the rich to give some of their wealth away. Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg have done this. Murdoch, however, has not enthusiastically embraced philanthropy.

One conclusion from our cover story is that governments must lead the way. Which means that national leaders should, like Whitlam, make addressing inequality a priority. The G20 summit, bringing together some of the world’s most powerful people, is an obvious place to start. I’m not hopeful, however. Such summits traditionally produce platitudes rather than concrete policies, and national interests tend to be put ahead of what’s good on a global scale. Central Brisbane will be in lockdown for the G20; there’s a danger that roadblocks and security checks will be a metaphor for isolated leaders, oblivious to what’s going on beyond the closed doors around them.

Alan Attwood, Editor