Taking Australia’s decency for granted

December 30, 2013

by Emily Millane

Ruth, the protagonist in Anna Funder’s novel All That I Am, is a political activist who escapes the Nazis to live out her later years in Sydney. Reflecting on the defining quality of the place and its people, Ruth sees Australia as “a glorious country, which aspires to no kind of glory. Its people aim for something more basic and more difficult: decency.”

Decency. It is a humble ambition, but no less noble than the greatness to which the Americans unashamedly aspire or the nobility the British seek. It is not to be confused or conflated with a discussion about justice, with all its splintered philosophical meanings. Decency represents something less confected and perhaps even less cerebral: a sense of what is fair, what is the right thing to do by another human being. Decency is, as Funder suggests, a defining national aspiration. It is a quality which is at risk in our public life.

The way we treat the most vulnerable groups in our society is one way to measure decency. It is against this yardstick that we are falling short.

People on low incomes have taken a number of hits in the last year. Most recently, the government struck down measures relating to the Aged Care Workforce Compact, meaning that the country’s aged care workers – 90 per cent of whom are women and who earn on average about $19 per hour – will forego a scheduled rise to their wages. The grounds for this decision? A perceived union bias embedded in the requirements for the Compact. Because the Government used its majority to strike down the Compact it did not have to repeal its governing legislation, which would have entailed going to the Upper House. A neat and sly move.

A scheduled pay increase for childcare workers has been scrapped. People in this industry, also mainly women, earn between $19 and $21 per hour. The minimum Australian wage is $16.40. The $300 million allocated to the pay increase has been diverted to professional training for childcare workers.

The Government refuses to rule out a proposal received by the Commission of Audit that people should pay an up-front fee to see their GP, in addition to the regular charge. There is no question that health costs, as a proportion of the budget, are growing and that we need to figure out a sustainable way of raising revenue to fund this increase. However, as the Australian Medical Association has said, this is not the way to do it – many people are already in the position where they ask themselves: “Do I really need to see the doctor?”

Westpac recently found that the average 60 year-old woman would need to work an extra 25 years in order to retire with the same superannuation account balance as her male counterpart. With consistently low wages in female-dominated industries, it is not hard to see why. Coupled with the fact that women go out of the workforce to have children and to care for them, without mandated superannuation contributions during this time, they start retirement on the back foot.

We are told that the Abbott Government’s fiscal tightening is a direct response to Labor’s economic recklessness. Seeking to cushion the budget blowout in the Mid-Year Economic and Financial Outlook, the Prime Minister posited that, ‘This has been the most profligate period for debt and deficit in Australia’s history.’ Interesting, then that net government debt as a proportion of GDP is at about 12.5 per cent – smaller than most OECD countries. It is also curious how an extra $1.2 billion can be allocated for things like offshore processing of asylum seekers. The money is there for the line items the government wants to keep in the ledger.

There are examples of the erosion of decency which pre-date the current government. When Bob Carr spuriously characterised asylum seekers as ‘economic migrants’ we were reminded how political opportunism so easily trumps all other considerations. Joel Fitzgibbon suggesting that families in Sydney on $250,000 were doing it tough was both laughable and appalling. And speaking of appalling, let’s not forget the self-serving warfare that went on in the highest ranks of the parliamentary Labor Party over the course of the Gillard government, often with pistons aimed at the prime minister herself.

All of this has gone on against the backdrop of a changing economy and growing inequality. With Ford and now Holden, we are seeing manufacturing jobs move overseas. Over one-third of the workforce is employed in casual work with the concomitant lack of security and benefits like superannuation which workers should be entitled to. As Andrew Leigh MP has written, half of all Australian families are living on a pre-tax income of $77,200 or less.

Do we really want a society where we erode the living standards of people already doing it tough? Where we make it harder for people on a basic wage to put money away for their retirement? Are we really content to be fed a diet of misrepresentations, lies and half-truths about these matters, whether from politicians or a compliant press? I suspect most Australians would answer these questions in the negative. That being the case, we need to be vocal about the kind of decent society we aspire to, rather than sleepwalking into a society we don’t recognise as ours.