The new inequality

Labor MP Andrew Leigh’s latest book Battlers and billionaires: the story of inequality in Australia has reproduced some powerful facts from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which condemn the system under which we live.

Since 1975, wages for the lowest paid workers have risen 15 percent, from $32,000 to $37,000. From 1993 to 2009, the average earnings of ASX 100 CEOs rose from $1 million, which was 17 times average earnings, to $3 million, 42 times average earnings.

Today the top 20 CEOs earn more than 100 times the average wage.

Leigh explores where this wealth goes, revealing that since the mid-1990s the number of helicopters in Australia has doubled, while the private jet fleet has tripled in the past decade.

These facts should send Leigh on a journey of exploration, to the heart of the problem and to questions about why such inequity is allowed to prosper.

However, Leigh’s examination hits a brick wall pretty quickly, and deviates into discussion about problems with parenting, with teachers and so on. It’s the usual self-imposed barrier that inhibits most writers from undertaking any genuine inquiry into capitalism.

After the facts, there are a lot of words. But there is no deeper political examination of the stark regression in the distribution of wealth in Australia, which, as he points out, is back to the levels of 100 years ago.

Any scholar would surely want to go further, but this would mean questioning the very basis of the system. In turn, that would mean asking difficult questions about the institutions that uphold the system, who supports them and who benefits from them.

Intellectual rigour dissipates so quickly because, in the face of such overwhelming evidence, no one can defend the obvious inequity of the capitalist system. In the end, even for the most inquiring minds, it becomes a matter of faith, not reason.

Leigh’s membership of the class that gave him an entree to the exclusive James Ruse High School in Sydney, to Harvard University and to Labor preselection dictates the parameters in which he must work. Anything outside them threatens the comfortable existence of those who flourish in his world on the backs of low paid workers.

In the end, he is another intellectual who writes and speaks about the injustices in this world while remaining wilfully blind to the real reasons behind the sufferings of those people trying to exist on $37,000 (or less) a year.

Leigh represents everything that is wrong about our education and parliamentary systems. People of his ilk have always been potentially more damaging to the working class than conservatives because they are promoted as caring advocates.

Not all workers are fooled by these snake-oil merchants. Many understand the deception behind so-called “Labor values”, and how ALP politicians use this slogan to garner votes only to carry on serving their masters in the banks and mining companies.

Realising they have been left without an alternative at the ballot box, and alienated by the election charade, working class people punish Labor in one of two ways. They vote for the likes of John Howard or Tony Abbott every now and then, or, as has been shown by the increasing drop-out rate on polling day, ignore the process altogether.

Leigh’s observations about inequality in books that those on $30,000 a year can’t afford to buy do little more than make him a nice supplement to his backbencher’s base salary, which, by the way, has risen 28 per cent in the past 18 months to $195,000 per annum.

[Battlers and billionaires is published by Black Inc.]