Yesterday, for the umpteenth time, I heard someone on television talking about ‘entitlements’. In that case he was referring to the employees at Gunn’s in Tasmania, who were being retrenched, and whose entitlements had to be paid in full. What were these entitlements? He didn’t say, but I imagine they would have been accrued financial benefits that went with the employees’ jobs — annual leave, perhaps superannuation, sick leave. No-one said exactly what these entitlements actually were.
‘Entitlements’ is a word that you hear a lot, and being interested in words I thought I would do some work on it, not only because of the Gunns case but because its use tells us of a widespread attitude within Australia. The word itself is straightforward, coming to us from Latin via French in the 15th century. The Latin word ‘titulus’ meant a number of things, but its core was an inscription, as in the title of a book, and for house-owners the title deeds that pertain to one’s house and land.
To be entitled is to possess such a title. From that sense comes the broader meaning of some right that is vested in law. We are entitled, under certain conditions, to the old-age pension when we reach a certain age. That right is set out in legislation. Are the Gunns employees so protected? No, they’re not, at least, not to anything like the same degree. The company certainly had provided benefits to its employees, but these were contingent on the company’s staying solvent. If it goes under, then another set of rules operates, in which shareholders and creditors have superior entitlements to employees.
And an entitlement has been not only a legal right, but also the assertion of it — a claim — for the last 400 years. That is what the union spokesman was saying on TV. It was not that the Gunns employees had rights to their annual leave if they were retrenched, but that they ought to have. That is the sense that we most frequently hear the word today: a claim that someone ought to have something.
When a company goes bust there are several sets of people who have grievances: the shareholders, whose property is now worthless, the company’s creditors, who may not get the full value of what is owed to them, the employees, who will lose their jobs, and the wider world that used the company’s products or services. There are laws about what should happen, and I have always felt that employees get the short straw in such events.
But here I want to point to the wider use of entitlement — the notion that all of us deserve more because Australia is a rich country, and you’re not rich, and neither am I — and why should others be if we’re not? It is this sense of entitlement that allows political parties to promise this or that to aggrieved groups who are making a lot of fuss. It is this that allows our welfare expenditure to rise and rise. It is this that makes people feel that they are entitled to some of the mineral wealth that has been discovered and exploited in Australia over the last ten years or so, when the terms of trade for our minerals have been favourable indeed.
I think it is a pernicious attitude, and I try not to share it. I have had a little to do with the mining industry, and know how many failures there are in finding, proving and commercialising minerals, especially in Australia, where the regolith, a great blanket of clay and soil that is the result of the erosion of our once high mountains, covers such a lot of the land. We get our share of the mining wealth through taxes and royalties, and the governments that receive the money use it to provide the services that we want.
The entitlement attitude engenders jealousy and negativity. In another domain altogether, that of injury, it discourages people getting better after an accident in order to receive a lump of money as ‘compo’ — because they feel entitled to it. In this field, and elsewhere, Australian society would be a lot happier, and more productive, if there were less of it.