We will have budget talk for another week, and then attention will shift to the new Senate and negotiations between the Coalition and the minor parties in the new Senate. But throughout the past week there has been a lot of talk and a lot of complaint about the ‘inequality’ said to be part of the Treasurer’s approach to the deficit. Who really is doing the ‘heavy lifting’?

I wrote a piece about the improvements in the level of poverty in the world some time ago, and said in it that inequality and poverty are not the same thing at all. The pervading theme in the complaints about the fairness of the budget is that the rich (whoever they are) should pay more than they do. Another way of expressing the theme is that part of the deficit is caused by the commitments to spending on the disabled and on public schools (via Gonski), and interfering with those commitments is to bring in (or back) more inequality. And that’s not fair. So the rich should pay.

‘Fairness’ has been one of the great cries in Australian politics and society from the beginning of the British settlement, and probably has a lot to do with the circumstances of a penal colony and the re-settlement into civil society of those convicts whose terms had expired. There is a sense in which it is hard to be opposed to ‘fairness’. But it is worth remembering, at the same time, that human societies are not naturally ‘equal’, and never can be. Humans themselves are not equal in any way: height, weight, beauty, talent, parents, circumstances when growing up, character, style, moral fibre, and so on. We are all unequal in every respect. That’s not unfair — it’s just the way it is.

Howard Gardner, whose work on multiple intelligences I have praised before, says that almost anyone can be ‘highly competent’ at almost anything, provided always that he or she wants to be, is encouraged to be, and is trained to be. But there is still only one winner at Wimbledon. And you need to be an outstandingly good-looking young woman to be considered for Miss Australia. And there is only one Queen.

Fairness and equality do get muddied up a lot. In AFL, for example, the season is intensely competitive, but there is also a feeling that no one club should be able simply to buy all the best players. That leads to rules like salary caps, and to the draft, where the weakest club gets the first pick of the new talent. All sports have codes of conduct on the field, where some things are ‘unfair’ and legislated against. We want a contest, but between more-or-less equals, not between the big and the small — there’s no fun in that (but remember David and Goliath). We do want a winner.

Perhaps there will be general agreement that there should be equality of respect, equality before the law and equality of opportunity. Yet as soon as you look hard at any one of these they become conceptually muddy too. We don’t in fact respect people equally, and no team wants to win the wooden spoon, if only because fans leave in droves because they have lost their respect. Respect has to be earned. I think the nub of this aspiration is that we shouldn’t treat people differently according to their race, sex, class and other categories. But of course we commonly do. Sometimes it is polite to do so.

Equality before the law is an important aspiration, but for every Alan Bond who serves time there are many others who get let off with light sentences or warnings because of their ‘previous character’ and their ‘standing in the community’. It helps to have money if you’re going to be in court. Not everyone has it, and only a few have lots of it.

Equality of opportunity? Another worthy aspiration, but see the list of inequalities above. It helps to have chosen your country, your parents, your race, your sex and your time of birth. As a society we do try to give kids a good start, and to offset their initial disadvantages if they are obvious enough. But we can’t really have ‘equality of opportunity’ — it’s just too hard to know what the real inequalities are in a particular case, and to compensate properly for them.

To me, the whole field of ‘inequality’ is a bog, where aspiration seems always to triumph over observation. I began with the budget and will finish with it. Those who didn’t like the budget claimed that it was unfair that the better-off shouldn’t be asked to accept more of the burden of the  so-called heavy lifting. Do the complainers actually know who pays what in income tax?  Below is a little graph showing the proportions of tax paid by the top 25 percent of income earners, the middle fifty per cent and the bottom 25 per cent. The data  have been assembled from the ATO reports by Professor Sinclair Davidson of RMIT, originally for Catallaxy Files; the graph below was used by the IPA, and is simpler.

share-of-income-tax-paid_-_FINALIt’s easy to see that the top 25 per cent of taxpayers in terms of their taxable income contribute about two thirds of all the income taxation revenue — and that in general their share has been rising over time, while the poor pay very little. Sure, you say, but that is because we have a progressive income taxation system. As it happens, I agree. But surely the better off are already doing a lot of heavy lifting, aren’t they? There’s some real inequality here.

As I said, talking about inequality gets you into a semantic swamp very quickly. I try to avoid it if I can.

Join the discussion 38 Comments

  • margaret says:

    If fairness is an Australian preoccupation stemming from white settlement as a penal colony, perhaps its roots are in the unfair punishment of those often petty crimes (stealing a loaf of bread to feed your family for example) committed in England, by transportation across the world, simply because the prison hulks lying out from shore in London were full to overflowing with criminals.

    Add to that the unfairness of the subjugation of the existing people who had lived here for 40,000 years, and it seems clear that while no sensible person believes that there will ever be equality, the concept of fairness is one that Australians who have a modicum of knowledge of our history feel justifiably passionate about.

    The jargon of lifters and leaners and age of entitlement is doublespeak. I reread your piece on a good society and Messers (sic) Hockey and Abbott are not delivering it.

    • Mike O'Ceirin says:

      I despair at your jaundiced opinions. Don writes about the fact that 25% of the population and you come up with this claptrap.

      So you claim the aboriginal were subjugated by English settlers. They were barbaric hunter gathers who subsisted and survived through brutality. Women were given away or sold at the whim of the tribal elders. The old and infirm left to die by starvation. It is not a criticism of Australian aboriginals but an explanation of what peoples in such a situation must do to survive. Fairness is a luxury which others provide.

      So you think we are all entitled to other peoples money. The federal government should provide money to anyone who asks and as much as they want! The disability pension must not be questioned just give more. Look around 1 in 27 people are on a disability lets make it 1 in 10 so to make it fair and equal. The rub is it is not other peoples money the government must pay it’s bills with money that comes from the tax payer. There is no magic pudding to get funds from.

      The welfare state you advocate is poison the merry go round of more welfare that is paid for by increased tax must stop.

      • Margaret says:

        Please, no need for despair. I am just one person, aware that I don’t know everything – unlike several of the commentators on this blog. I thought the treasurer answered the questions on Q&A in a way that dispelled a lot of the panic and misinformation that Australian citizens have felt about the Budget’s effects on the myth of an egalitarian society that we don’t live in. I didn’t say or imply that aboriginal society was a utopia prior to 1788. I find the tone of your reply pretty unpleasant and unlike Don Aitkin’s measured words, patronising. If you see jaundice, it’s possibly a projection.

        • Mike O'Ceirin says:

          Aboriginal subjugation rubbish! Age of entitlement is real and a problem.

          • margaret says:

            I’m reading Convincing Ground by Bruce Pascoe, so I may be absorbed by this subject right now. He’s a good writer of aboriginal and Cornish ancestry. It’s a pity more Australians aren’t ready to read the other side of the story but there are so many closed minds that become even more rusted and closed as they comfortably approach older age.

          • margaret says:

            I have come back to this statement mr o’ceirin as it is not rubbish that the first nations were subjugated (as all 18th century colonisers did to all original peoples of the lands they invaded and claimed for themselves in the name of civilisation).
            “The collection of bodies at Mitchell is central to a shameful, bleak,
            little-known narrative that begins at colonisation and reverberates
            through Australia’s unsettled national sovereignty. It extends
            discomfortingly into the 20th century, and resonates today as an element
            of ongoing trauma in Aboriginal communities.”


            The above article is a must-read.

  • DaveW says:

    I think Don’s comment is fair. What should be a fairly simple concept, equality under the law, has become very murky. Probably it has always been so, but things are not improving. The Racial Discrimination Act, however good its original intentions, should be an embarrassment to all Australians, but instead it is defended on both sides of the political fence by people that see it as to their advantage. People seek advantage and when government gives it to them, they don’t want to let go. When you make some people more equal under the law than others, then clearly you have less equality. George Orwell pointed this out long ago.

    Political parties need to have an us-them view, but the dividers could be based on philosophy of best governement. Instead, it is at least 90% grubbing for power with a few philosophical rags draped over the immodesty. So, Bill Shorten can barrack against the tax on the rich without the least sign of embarrassment. Joe Hockey can preach penny-wise while living a life of luxury. And so on. Both sides seem happy to use tax funds to fund their favourite schemes and neither side seems much interested in fairness or equality.

    Everyone seems to agree that, all else being equal, government revenues will increase in coming years and the budget problem isn’t revenue, it is spending. But instead of cutting out the slack and excessive entitlements, Abbott and Hockey are raising taxes while making very modest cuts to spending. The State governments, although mostly Coalition, are already plotting to raise the GST. Interestingly, the ABC, while raging against the $7 co-payment, gives the GST-increase favourable coverage – won’t that have far more impact on the poor than a modest co-payment? Is that fair?

    • margaret says:

      I don’t believe that anyone goes searching for a bulk-billing doctor unless they are unable to pay for what most of us have always paid for – a visit to the GP has never been thought of as a free service for most people and there aren’t that many bulk billing services – maybe the newer super clinics in the outer suburbs where young families whose kids get sick a lot are living, or the inner city suburbs of Melbourne where literally you see the less fortunate in this country on the streets participating rightfully in their daily activities.

      Therefore, the co-payment is immensely UNFAIR, because it hits those people who have been using a health service that most of us wouldn’t dream of taking advantage of because WE don’t need it. But – one day …..

  • Peter Kemmis says:

    One of my left-of-centre good friends asked me yesterday what I thought if this last Budget. I should declare that whereas some years ago I was also a little to the left, now I find I am more to the right. My response to her question was that I couldn’t offer an informed judgment. Why? Because without some investigation at depth, involving all the financial projections of impacts on pockets, government receipts, and growth rates and impediments, how the dickens can I possibly give a sensible and informed answer to the basic questions, “is it a good budget, and is it a fair budget”?

    So as I read letters to editors, opinions of those representing affected groups, and analyses by economics commentators, I am struck by how narrow are the premises of many opinions, especially of those on the welfare end of the spectrum. It’s almost as if we divide ourselves along the conventional lines of the “self-help brigade”, and the “help everyone” brigade. It’s not that the demarcation is clear cut; there is much overlap. But if you lean to the “self help” side, you’re likely to be concluding that the Budget is fair and reasonable, even while you believe some genuinely needy people will find it tougher. However, your opinion is not likely to be based on any decent analysis of the Budget as a whole. Likewise, if you are more to the “help everyone” side, you’ll perhaps conclude the opposite, without any thorough analysis either – except perhaps one area which is close to home.

    Another observation concerns the mooted new “retirement age”? A first time visitor to Australia may get the impression that we won’t be allowed to retire till we’re 70 years old, and that we’re disappointed to have been given those extra five years of life expectancy. The 70 year age is all about access to superannuation and perhaps the aged pension: it’s not really about a retirement age. You may find you can “retire” well before then, because you have been able to establish sufficient assets with an income. And my personal advice, having now been sufficiently fortunate to be over 70 while still in good health (see, nothing’s fair, as there are many of my old friends not in the best of health), is: “don’t ever retire! Maybe change what you do, but don’t retire!” I have thought for a long time that the provision allowing Commonwealth and some state public servants who retired at the age of 54 years 11 months to retain their full benefits that would be applicable at age 65 (a provision supposedly to allow younger blood to be employed?), was utterly silly. Losing experience, parking useful and able people on the shelf, to be then bored out of their minds . . . . “oh, but they’re entitled to it!” What a piece of self-serving and self-defeating nonsense that was.

    Finally, there is a prevailing view that “I’ve paid taxes all my life, I’m entitled to the aged pension!” I had always thought the pension was a safety net, not a superannuation scheme. Have I got this wrong? When I take out general insurance, and don’t make a claim for years, does that mean I can claw back some of my premiums? I’ll have to try that one on, so wish me luck!

    • margaret says:

      Peter, surely the age pension was more than a safety net in my grandfather’s time – if one was fortunate enough to live past 65 that is. If he, a stretcher-bearer in WWI who lived till he was 75, didn’t get the age pension I am wondering what he lived on. My father and mother were self-funded retirees who lived into their eighties by which time they were on a part pension and, my father having served in the Royal Australian Navy in WWII, had a gold card. This was so helpful to him as he was struck in his fifties by a congenital angioma requiring surgery that led to nerve damage and left him with an ileostomy for 30 years.

      He was very fastidious but it was a deeply traumatic life event, as was the fact that he was not on board the stores carrier that regularly plied the Coral Sea to Milne Bay when it mysteriously disappeared with all hands lost in 1944. The phrases post traumatic stress and survivor guilt had not been coined then of course. He was young. He put his age up to join the navy at 17.

      My father loved John Howard for his support of WWII veterans. I understand that.

      • Peter Kemmis says:


        I thought that all I was pointing out is the distinction between one’s entitlement as a member of a superannuation fund, and one’s entitlement to an aged pension. The former is supposed to be unconditional, the latter conditional on need. I have little doubt the family cases you have cited, were not only cases of need, but absolutely deserved. The entitlement is essentially based on need, and frankly from my perspective, most willingly provided.

        I just don’t recall from my younger days, any sense of entitlement to an aged pension. The phrase that comes to mind in any such discussions I had with older people back then, is “well, if I don’t have enough to live on, I guess I’ll have to go on the pension”. However, a brother who died a couple of years ago, did express to me in his later years that as he’d paid taxes all his life, he was entitled to receive the pension, which he did.

        Incidentally, my wife and I chuckled about Don’s request that you “stick with the debates here”. What we have is a real and useful difference between the way men and women proceed with a discussion. Men are quite good at differentiating among and pursuing discrete issues; women are often better at broadening the scope of the discussion to embrace the range of issues that they perceive to be relevant. What men get exasperated about is that women seem to discuss everything at once, and we poor blokes can really only do one thing at a time! That difference comes through in what you have raised on this thread, which I find quite thought-provoking. So for example, I have a number of reflections about the enormous topic of the history as well as the present and future situation of aboriginality within the broader context of Australian citizenship. These reflections will have to wait for some other opportunity.

        Meanwhile, I have to smile broadly at the different approaches between men and women, and accept that they are based on our biology through its hunter-gatherer origins.

        • margaret says:

          Peter, I’m back – because you are a humorous human being. I’ve spent a couple of days in Ballarat visiting the Museum of Australian Democracy, the art gallery, the botanical gardens where there is an avenue of the busts of Australia’s prime ministers. Mr Rudd is there now, looking very un-prime ministerial and I stood on the plinth where Ms Julia Gillard will be placed when whoever is in charge gets around to it. Sadly she has to look across the gravel path at Mr Rudd – delicious in its irony (if in fact that is irony) – delicious all the same.
          I was able to like Ballarat despite the grey cool showers and I think that’s because I stayed overnight, because its fine buildings can leave a cold impression, like when you enter Craig’s Royal Hotel for a glass of sparkling, where people like Mark Twain stayed it can be very disappointing to see that just behind reception is a bank of poker machines where glaze-eyed patrons are wasting time and money and the trip to the toilet ensures that you are given ‘help’ with posters on the wall asking if you may have a gambling problem, if so ring this number. Right next to the pokies area is a fine-dining French restaurant – so many contradictions in this fascinating world. I did like seeing in several locations 3 flags flying side by side – Australian, Aboriginal and the Eureka stockade.
          cheers until another time, another disagreement.

          • Peter Kemmis says:

            Hi Margaret

            Indeed you’re back, and I’m glad of it. Incidentally, I hope you took note of that phone number next the pokies; I might need it, as I’m told that with my attitude to AGW I’m gambling with my grand-children’s future.

            Since our last iteration on the Budget, I’ve read more analysis, and thought further on some issues, which I’ll touch on here.
            1. The $7 co-payment: my local clinic has been charging co-payments for years for those who can afford it, and waiving it completely for those who can’t (i.e. full bulk billing). I suspect this practice is common, and the $7 will be waived for those genuinely in need. So I do think the issue has been blown out of proportion. I’m also surprised at the figures given on average annual visits per person to the doctor – very high.
            2. One of my daughters (a Mum with three still in primary school), is doing Honours at a notable uni. She’s ropeable about the Unis being able to charge fees as they choose says it exacerbates the elitism that she observes. She may be right. I’d be glad of Don’s view on this (you may know that in another life, he was a Vice-Chancellor).
            3. If under 30, study or work! You know, I’ve had people often say to me, if you really want work, you’ll find it. I don’t know how true that is today, but I suspect that many who become unemployed need to be more imaginative about what they might undertake, and more vigorous in pursuing opportunities. Now perhaps this is harsh, and you are permitted to chide me gently. I’m also quite convinced that whereas in my wild and mis-spent youth, I was able to hitch-hike around Australia and get work wherever I was, many of those jobs are not there today. So for many, instead they just have to put their heads down and study to get some further qualification beyond their school results. They have to work, to improve their chances of a job.

            Your thoughts?

          • dlb says:

            Hi Peter K,

            Late to the party again, but you still seem to be around with a half full cocktail glass, even though Margaret has probably gone home by now.

            One of my Abbottt Govt hating friends thinks the levy on high income earners will also hurt the poor. His reasoning is that business owner will put up the price on their goods and services to compensate for the new levy on their income.

            I suppose with anything a government does someone will find a negative if they look hard enough. Any thoughts?

          • Peter Kemmis says:

            Hi dlb

            Delighted to hear you had some decent time around one of our National Parks. Having been brought up in and around the Australian bush, I can never get it out of my system, nor ever want to. Not a cocktail glass, but shortly to be a wine glass. Like my life, I prefer to think it is always at least half full. Now to your question – and this is my quite untutored view.

            If you’re wealthy enough to be liable for the levy, you probably won’t notice it much, if at all. Frankly, if you’re earning enough to be liable for it, count yourself lucky that you’re in the position you are in. With that level of wealth, you probably won’t be making retail buying and selling decisions. If you’re an owner of a small business, I bet you won’t be liable for the levy. You just won’t be making enough.

            Prices are influenced primarily by costs, competition, and desired profit margins. I don’t think your friend’s concerns will be realised. Hope that helps.

          • margaret says:

            Hi Peter
            i’m just answering each point on my own experience.
            1. I lived in Canberra for 35 years and in many respects I miss it, not least because my daughter and her husband and our grandchildren have returned there after 3 years in Kyoto where our grandson was born. I could continue along that tangent but this answer is about the co-payment. I don’t object to it now that I have found out that there are so many people who have been bulk billed for so long who could afford it. But in all the years I lived in Canberra I never attended a bulk billing practice and always paid upwards of $40 (?) per visit which I then claimed the medicare rebate on.

            2. I agree with your daughter. I think free university a la Whitlam is untenable and wasteful but why go to the other extreme. I did work with women who, (and men, but it’s the women who benefited by comparison to those women who didn’t have a free university education), women who benefited from a free university education and because of that were able to get to positions usually held by men. I am of the era and the type of father who felt university education was somewhat wasteful for women since the’d most likely marry, have kids and – all over red rover. He was proud that I went to teacher’s college though.
            3. I think you may have answered your own point there Peter. It’s a colder harder society even though we have so much ‘choice’ – it really was not nice when I received a telegram from the Dept. of Ed. 2 weeks into my first teaching appointment at a regional city primary school with a great little class of primary school children I was just getting to know. The telegram informed me that I should report to Tharbogang on the following Monday where I would be teaching lower division (K,1 and 2). Since teachers were on a bond for 3 years there was no choice but to do this. It didn’t kill me, but neither did it allow me the same opportunities I would have had in a larger school with the staff who were friendly helpful and somewhat mentoring.

          • Peter Kemmis says:

            Hi Margaret
            On the last point 3,
            a) The report the other day about the recent WA “independent” public schools’ success in attracting students, I found encouraging. Our state-based systems were probably quite modern and progressive even up to the first half of the 20th century, given the circumstances of the time, but they became very bureaucratic and rigid, as your account illustrates. I should add that my Dad had some very poor commentary on some of the teaching and teachers he had suffered, and I think every western country was at the time hauling itself up by its educational bootstraps.
            b) The concern I have about the under 30s unemployed is about job opportunities. This is particularly true for remote communities. Real jobs, not make-believe ones, give us pride in ourselves. I wonder how many jobs there might be in our country areas that remain unfilled. I don’t know what that potential labour market is like, and I wonder whether insufficient imagination and energy is holding us back from coming up with better answers.

            I’ll be catching up with that lovely daughter of mine tomorrow at her Uni, and I’ll sure we’ll continue that particular discussion she and I were having.

          • margaret says:

            “Real jobs, not make-believe ones, give us pride in ourselves.” That is so true.
            Despite the challenges of a three teacher school with a large Italian migrant population (in the heart of the area where Donald Mackay’s crusade led to his death), where Kindergarten children came to school with barely any English and some with grappa in their drink bottles, for me, at the age of 20 the experience was beneficial in that regard even if it was sink or swim in terms of learning to teach. However teachers colleges trained students well and were 9 to 5, 5 days a week places, not a lecture here and a lecture there.
            I start to feel that it’s pointless to compare the times when there was such low unemployment and so many ‘real’ jobs and so much more structure in society, with today’s situation where everything is supposedly so much more transparent but always able to be spun into anything but the truth.
            When I feel like that I get disheartened because I don’t think there’s any help in me saying ‘back in my day’ … unless it’s to show that I actually lived as a young person in very good times in Australia whether you had a rich or less rich background – that is, The Sixties.

          • Peter Kemmis says:

            Hi Margaret
            I know you have said you now choose not to follow discussions on climate science, with each side throwing statistics at each other. At the risk of boring you, would you care to have a look at the discussion I’ve been having on Don’s subsequent post on “the warming frenzy”? It’s reasonably free of stats, hyperbole, and wholly free of invective. You might even enjoy reading it! Regardless, I’d appreciate your comment as a dispassionate observer.

          • margaret says:

            Okay I will take a look and if not bamboozled, will respond later – as now it’s pea and ham soup preparation time.

          • margaret says:

            Peter, you flatter me – the whole issue is over the head of a non-expert. But, the long rally between yourself and mr jelbert indicates to me the fruitlessness of argument between the skeptics and the believers. Perhaps all the skeptics should shoulder arms and err on the side of the believers if only because the believers would then have to contend with each other and then the whole industry of CAGW may just implode and everyone could start again.
            That’s how crazy it all seems to me. What is the point and where does it lead? Unanswerable.

          • Peter Kemmis says:

            Hi Margaret

            Thank you for taking the trouble indeed. I noticed your more recent comments on the “warming frenzy” post, so I’ll get back to you on a couple of issues you raise, particularly on “what is the point”, and will do so when I’m fresh (probably need some pea and ham soup).

            Incidentally, that lovely daughter still feels very strongly about the risk of fee setting at universities, and doesn’t give much credence to either the motive or likely outcome of financial competition among the universities. I’m not sure either, but not as definite as she is. She is a very caring person; sometimes that can skew one’s judgment a little, I suspect. You know, toss out an idea wholesale because you see a serious downside, when there might be a range of outcomes. Anyway, enough for tonight.

        • margaret says:

          Hi Peter, I’ve been thinking about what you wrote about the aged pension as safety net not entitlement. With this government the aged pension seems to have become ‘welfare’ and I never believed that the aged pension was welfare as I grew up. I know my parents struggled as self-funded retirees because they were on the cusp of being able to fund their retirement but my father was very proud to have done so – not that it improved his frame of mind as he counted and accounted for everything that had to be paid for (it’s not so great to have little discretionary spending ability). It seems to me that if the aged pension becomes viewed as welfare that many people who have not had the sort of jobs/careers/employment that will serve them well in their ‘golden years’ are going to be looked on as second rate and bludgers. There are not as many people as the politicians (with their own generous benefits) may think, who are in the fortunate position of retiring on anywhere near the annual salary that they earned in the workforce.

  • Dasher says:

    I am a pragmatist and as someone who was in deep debt many years ago due to a building society collapse (where I invested too much money..stupid) I am very sensitive to spending beyond ones means. I was a senior Army officer and my solution at the time was to buy two very cheap cars rather than go into debt, we needed a home and with the help of my family we built about 80% of the dwelling ourselves, we did not borrow to pay borrowings and we cut our cloth accordingly…it was tough and at times demeaning. After some 25 years I still remember having to say to my son that I could not afford a football trip that he had worked hard to be part of. It was awful….but ten years later we had pulled ourselves up by the bootstraps and while I still remember that football trip, he understands but we are all stronger for the experience. Spare me this garbage that we can continue along the path we were on…if it hurts now, imagine how it would feel if we did nothing. If anything this budget is not tough enough……very few are feeling real pain, but I understand the politics (first steps are important) I thought that Hockey hit it out of the park on Q&A last night. For Gods sake get a grip Australia.

  • margaret says:

    Reading this post again I’m struck by the fact that the graph is included to vindicate the fact that high income earners really ARE doing more for Australia’s covernment coffers than poor people.

    But isn’t that only FAIR?!!

    Ross Gittins is a VERY interesting read this morning.

    I think I can fairly say that the readership of this blog comprises people of mature years who may not now see or care what unfairness IS in Australian society largely because they are no longer swimming upstream against any headwaters.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      The simplest way to express the point is that all government benefits come from other people’s tax payments. A proper analysis would include GST, and perhaps I’ll do that on another day. Yes, I think that a progressive taxation system is fair, for several reasons. But how progressive should it be? How fair is ‘fair’? In Sweden the tax rate is about double ours, and every welfare benefit is delivered by public servants. Sweden has all sorts of problems too, just as we have. We have a large voluntary sector, which is good for us both socially and individually. Sweden’s is tiny in comparison.

      When governments need to cut expenditure an obvious first step is to look at transfers. Australia is in general 50 per cent better off than it was in the 1990s (the less well-off as well as the better-off), but many benefits just continue because it’s politically hard to change them — as we are seeing.

      I do remember what it was like not to have any money, and I remember that my father got up early in the day to write textbooks, just as, later on, I spent much time writing newspaper pieces, to make more money so that my family would be better off. It didn’t seem fair to me then that other people swanned around in Jaguars, or had large houses, or went overseas. But a lot of them had worked hard for what they had, or were the children of those who had worked hard.

      For what my opinion is worth, Australia is fairer today than it was fifty years ago, and the poor are much better off, live easier lives and live longer. How fair do you want it to be — and why?

      • margaret says:

        Don, on the front bench I want to see more than Julie Bishop representing the half of our population that comprises women. I want a leader who is not religiously motivated and who understands and relates to more than the Sydney North Shore demography.

        I want someone genuinely interested in a quality education that is not just for the elite. I want Medicare to exist as it was designed. I want affordable, accessible child care for parents, not paid parental leave for women of ‘calibre’.
        I want a man or woman who is not rigidly demarcated into how a man or a woman should ‘be’ and what they are ‘meant’ for. I want leaders who care about more than the economy and the interests of the top 3%. And why? Because that seems fair and hopeful and helpful for the citizens of this country and because I believe in social democracy.

        • margaret says:

          … and I don’t want any children in detention centres.

        • Don Aitkin says:


          I join with others to ask that you stick with the debates here. Nothing you have said seems way out to me. We all want the best for our country and its people, and we differ on the priorities and the timing.

          If you want more women in the parliament ry Liberal party, then you need to say something to the Libs. I’m not deeply impressed with the femaleness of most of the women in Parliament, but accept that it is presently played under ‘male rules’.

          I have no objection to a religiously motivated leader unless he or she wants to evangelise. Then I’m opposed at once. I’ve been evangelised before, and I’m not for it.

          I want a much better education than we presently have, but we won’t get that until parents and the society in general understands that education is much more complicated than getting the kids to go to school and doing well.

          I don’t want Medicare as it presently is, and what it was presently designed for wasn’t all that hot either. I think we are personally responsible for our own health and state of well-being, and that the use of the ‘health system’ should be occasional, not automatic.

          I’m not at all sure what the right system for child care is, and why others should pay for a woman to go to work — or a man, for that matter.

          I don’t believe any leader past or present cares too much about the top 3%, whoever they might be. All leaders worry about the people who run the news media, and I don’t mean the owners.

          I am a meritocrat who believes in his kind of social democracy!

          There you are.



          • margaret says:

            watch Jane Hutcheon’s interview with Alice Walker on One plus One. I don’t know what you mean by ‘femaleness’ but I would be disappointed if you were not impressed by this woman’s humanity and intelligence.
            I find meritocracy very very cold. It’s elitist and once ‘the cream’ rises to the top it often curdles. I don’t know if it’s possible to have excellence and egalitarianism co-existing but I much prefer that concept to cold hard meritocracy (and let’s face it, meritocracy is open to exploitation as much as any system).

          • Don Aitkin says:

            I’m not sure what I meant by ‘femaleness’ either. I didn’t want to use ‘femininity’.

            Having spent a good part of my life studying politicians and later working with them (and having known a lot over the years) I respect most of them, think they have a very hard job, and know very few who don’t work hard at it. But it is an intensely competitive arena, and that makes it very male. Women who get there have to play by those rules, and they don’t survive unless they do. That makes them tough.

            Elsewhere I’ve written that the key metaphor for men is ‘the game’, for women it is ‘the relationship’. Politics would be a whole lot better if there were many more women in it.

    • Peter Kemmis says:


      I don’t know whether many people who are in the top 25% of earners, and for that matter the next group of 50%, actually complain that their share of income tax is unfair. I think the chart is useful as a counter to the frequent claim that “the rich don’t pay enough tax”. As I said above, I don’t have the data to decide whether it is “enough and fair”, or whether it should be more or less. But the chart at least tells me something. I like to have data to work with, to try and avoid basing my opinions on my preconceptions.

      Now I’ve been mulling over your last paragraph; may I suggest that you are drawing a very long bow? How do you know the demographic and circumstances of the readership? Or are you just extrapolating from the balance of views expressed through comments? Speaking for myself, I still have headwaters, I’m still working, and I think I’m lucky that I can. In addition, I have several grandchildren, and I do care that they grow in a fair society. I do think you have been rather harsh on the character of a number of others who comment on this site. It is clear you care, it is clear you feel deeply, and while that attests to your integrity and motive, it does not mean your conclusions are right.

      • margaret says:

        Peter, yes, I can be harsh, my children have said as much at times. I also have grandchildren and i am not young. I am drawing a bow – I don’t know how long it is. I think you seem to be a rather nice man. I was going to preface my earlier reply to you with that remark, however I thought not probably appropriate – one of the respondents has said, he does not know me – I wasn’t under the impression that to comment one had to be ‘known’.
        One thing I realise is that I am not like-minded with anyone in this forum of chaps. It’s a forum that creates a feeling of ‘intruder alert’. I shall cease and desist from further comment – you may all now cheer.

        • Peter Kemmis says:


          If you want a site that screams “intruder alert!”, you could try http://www.skepticalscience.com – that’s a site where unwelcome comments are very likely to be “moderated” – a euphemism for “removed with admonition”. On this site of Don’s one can find intelligent and thoughtful comment, quite unmoderated.

          How do you know your views do not receive support? And you’re quite right, you don’t have to be “known” – I read that phrase meaning simply that the writer was not able to offer the kind of comment that one might where the other party is known.

          And what makes you think your views are not valuable? Goodness, with the issues you raise and the challenges you throw down, the way different people pick up those good points and offer part counter and part acceptance, what more can one expect? What’s the point of a site where everyone just agrees all the time? We learn zilch that way.

          I have several other points you’ve raised on this one post, to which I still haven’t responded. So I will not cheer were you to withdraw into silence – nor do I believe you will.

  • GenghisCunn says:

    Don, I have three posts on Online Opinion in response to your article there.

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