Wednesday, December 1, 2010

As Labor spouts its values, gap rich poor gap widens

Why do I get the feeling that, after their just-short-of-disastrous showing in the August election, Julia Gillard and her ministers aren't so much engaged in soul-searching as in trying to improve their PR. They're all giving speeches about Labor's reason for existence, and they're all saying much the same thing, as though they were all briefed by the same spin doctor.

Their central message is that Labor stands for a "strong economy". Well, sure. Which party stands for a weak economy? Anything else?

Gillard says Labor's values are "a strong economy - and opportunity for all". Wayne Swan says Labor's core purpose is "prosperity and opportunity". Neither says much about what "opportunity" means. Maybe it means whatever you'd like it to mean.

Fortunately, Penny Wong is a little more explicit. She says Labor stands for "a fair go, a just society, a strong economy. A fair go encompasses Labor's tradition of fairness, of equality of opportunity and the aspiration for equity in outcome or worth.

"A just society references our social, legal and institutional frameworks, the principles that govern

our community and the relationships within it. Our rights and shared responsibilities."

Well, that's sounding more like Labor. But if Gillard Labor still stands for Labor's tradition of fairness it's got a fair bit of work to do, as I ventured to suggest when invited to deliver the ACTU's Whitlam Lecture in Melbourne last night. And so far its record has been mixed.

Every few years the Bureau of Statistics measures the distribution of disposable income between Australia's households. It's too soon for us to have any clear evidence on what's happened to equity under the Labor government, but we do know that, after changing little between 1995 and 2004, the gap between rich and poor widened markedly between 2004 and 2008 - essentially the Howard government's last years.

If disposable income was equally distributed between households, the bottom 20 per cent of households would have 20 per cent of total income and the top 20 per cent of households would also have 20 per cent of total income.

In fact, the latest figures show that the bottom fifth has just 7 per cent of the income, whereas the top fifth has more than 40 per cent. And over just the last four years the shares of the four bottom fifths fell by about 0.5 percentage points each, allowing the share of the top fifth to rise by 2 percentage points.

Why this sudden deterioration? No one can say with any certainty. Various factors could have contributed: the resources boom and the booming sharemarket before the global financial crisis, the continued rise in executive and finance-sector salaries and maybe the succession of income tax cuts that benefited people on high incomes.

One factor that seems to have limited the rise in inequality throughout most of John Howard's reign was his large and repeated increases in family benefits. But there was a lot less of that in his later years.

But the bureau's practice of lumping together the top 20 per cent of households almost certainly conceals the extent to which the incomes of a relative handful of households at the very top have risen inordinately (and it may well be the incomes of households in the second highest 10 per cent rose at much the same rate as for the bottom 80 per cent).

Though they're not strictly comparable, and are no more recent than 2002, income tax statistics show that the top 0.05 per cent of individual taxpayers accounted for about 2 per cent of total taxable income. The top 1 per cent accounted for 9 per cent, the top 5 per cent for 21 per cent and the top 10 per cent for 31 per cent. (This last is up from 25 per cent in the early 1980s.)

These figures laugh at the notion of Australia as the great egalitarian paradise. But they only put us somewhere in the middle of the developed country pack: much more unequal than the Nordic countries, but not as bad as the other English-speaking countries: Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, Britain and the United States.

Were Labor to want to reduce inequality in Australia, the conventional starting place would be with taxation. Had Labor had its "tradition of fairness" at the top of its consciousness in the 2007 election campaign, it wouldn't have promised to introduce essentially the same three years' worth of tax cuts as those designed by Peter Costello to advantage people on incomes well above the average.

Admittedly, Labor's minerals resource rent tax will even things up a little, but it could be doing more to make the taxation of superannuation less heavily biased in favour of high income earners. The same goes for the concessional taxation of capital gains.

Remember, however, that much of the budget's redistribution of income from the rich to the poor comes from the way means-testing is used to restrict social security payments to those who are genuinely needy.

The Howard government took steps to bypass means-testing and introduce middle-class welfare. Labor has rolled back some of this, but could do more. It gave generous one-off increases in pensions, but excluded the unemployed from this munificence and limited the benefit flowing to sole parents.

One institution central to the goal of equality of opportunity is public schools. Gillard claims to have doubled funding for all schools, but so far she's done nothing to reform John Howard's biased funding formula in favour of better-off private schools.

One trend that's worked against a fair go is the many means by which employers have transferred risk from their own shoulders to those of their employees. These range from the casualisation of the workforce and making workers supposedly independent contractors to the risks of superannuation accumulation.

It would be nice to see the Gillard government doing more to act on its values rather than talk about them.