June 2004 Archives

The belief that Australia is an Egalitarian and Classless society has long been a key ingredient of the way Australians see themselves. (Thompson 1994:ix)

As political theorist Eugene Kamenka explains: the attempt to describe national characteristics is always problematic, and at best offers an isolated cultural and political trend. 'At worst, and most frequently it is a hotchpotch of error and prejudice. It usually has some foundation in truth, but it goes to style more than substance and it has to be explored and applied with greatest caution' (Kamenka 1984:13)

Egalitarianism is a 'slippery notion because it exists at a number of levels' (Thompson 1994: viii). The concept of Equality of opportunity, the idea that 'all positions in society should be open to a competitive system of entry by means of educational attainment on the basis of personal talent' (Abercrombie & Hill 1984:88) is the 'legacy of the French Revolution' (Ibid).

It is important to differentiate Humanist Egalitarianism from Communism. While Marxists would strive for a society in which all are equal in their income and condition, Egalitarianism is examined on two main points: a fair distribution of income and power, and the ability of an individual to transcend his initial social class (Ibid).

Australians believe they live in an Egalitarian Society (Bessant & Watts: 278). This view is elaborated in the 'commonsense' view that: (1) 'Australia is a classless society', (2)'Many Australians like to think of themselves as not belonging to a class', (3)'Australia has one big middle class with a few rich and poor', (4) 'If there are differences- they are because of variation in physique, energy, and willingness to work', and (5) 'the welfare state irons any difference in any case' (Bessant & Watts 2001:278).

The origins of Australian Egalitarianism are in the early days of the White settlement. The English convicts were the outcasts of the English class system. The struggle against authority (The British Soldiers) and later on against the perils of the Australian environment developed a form of brotherhood, or mateship, among the early Australians.

Australian Egalitarianism was reinforced - if not completely invented- by foreign visitors. In the beginning of the 20th century, after his first visit down under, D.H. Lawrence wrote that 'You feel free in Australia. There is great relief in the atmosphere - a relief from tension, from pressure, an absence of control of will or form. The Skies open above you and the areas open around you.'(in Australian Wisdom 2004) Lawrence was awed by the fact that 'there was really no class distinction (in Gilding 2003)' in Australian society and that 'nobody felt better than anyone else' (in Ibid). Still, even Lawrence stressed that some people were better off than others, but it did not appear to make them feel that they are better in any other way. The 19th century English author Marcus Clark exclaimed that the new Australians are 'not nations of snobs like the English or of extravagant boasters like the Americans or of reckless profligates like the French; they are simply a nation of drunkards (in Australian Wisdom 2004)'. The last part of this observation is peculiarly relevant, as it introduces the Australian inclination towards intoxication, either literally or figuratively speaking.

Australians often like to introduce new visitors to the Australian "Tall Poppy" Syndrome (henceforth TPS). 'In Australian English, tall poppies are usually individuals who, on the basis of unwarranted self-adulation, itself a consequence of success, amassed fortune or fame, have become targets for criticism' (Peeters 2004). Australians take pride in the fact that their culture scorns or does not appreciate high achievers or extravagant success stories. While some complain that TPS hinders 'Australian Creativity by supplying alibis for mediocrity' (McQueen 2004), most accept it as one of the fine features of Australian Egalitarianism. Another admired Australian notion is the right for a 'Fair Go'. 'To believe in a fair go is to believe in individual determination free of racial, political, religious or socio-economic discrimination.' (Australian Values 2004) While this may seem as a trait shared by all western cultures, Australians trace the idea of 'A Fair Go' to the days of the penal settlement and the convict idiom of a 'fair crack of the whip' (Ibid).

Australia was also a pioneer in women's social rights. The 1885 Constitution (Female Suffrage) Act (SA)' established Australia as the 2nd country in the world, following New Zealand, to give women the right to vote.

But the newly formed brotherhood also played a role in enhancing inequality. As Elaine Thompson points out, early 'Australia was not only sexist in ways typical of European and American societies but egalitarian mateship among males actively excluded women.' (Thompson 1994:xi) So it is not that Australians were in opposition to women- they were simply in favor of men. This notion of 'omission through equation' -towards women or any other other -is a leitmotif in the narrative of Australian History.

But the Australian 'mateship' did not only extend itself to constrict women. From the 1850s Anglo-Australians resented the fact that indigenous Chinese (hard) workers could possibly get rich on 'their expense' and the young governments of Victoria and New South Wales enacted rules to restrict Chinese Immigration. Later, in 1901, more restrictions were put up against pacific islanders and virtually anyone who is not of English Origin (Australian Immigration Fact Sheet 2003). This policy, also known as 'White Australia', worked to preserve Australia's 'Original' ethnic fabric by imposing arbitrary language tests on new immigrants. After the 2nd World War the policy was made more lenient in order to accept refugees and new immigrants of European Background, and was slowly eradicated during a period of 24 years until its 'final vestiges'(Ibid) were abolished by the new Labour Government in 1973.(Ibid.)

While women were -at least formally - accepted as equal in 1885, 'Aboriginal people were excluded from 'modern humanity' up until 1967' (Ibid: x); Aboriginies were not treated unfairly by Australian society for the simple reason that they did not exist under Australian law. They were "Present Absentees". And so 'Racism and Egalitarianism were interwoven until the 1970s at least' (Ibid: x).

Poverty was discovered as a social problem in Australia in the late 1960s (Fincher & Niuewenhuysen in Bessant & Watts 2001:275). Today, 'new evidence suggests that its incidence has doubled between 1975 and 1995, to affect about 30% of Australians' (Ibid).

As Professor Peter Saunders from the Social Policy Research Centre, University of New South Wales, points out: 'Research shows that over the six years between 1995 and 2001 average disposable incomes increased by 11.9% per person but the richest 20% of Australians increased their income by 14% per week while the poorest 20% of Australians increased their incomes by 7.8% per week (Saunders in McCallum 2004). So, as the old saying goes, the rich get richer and the poor get relatively poorer. This happens in a country in which already 'the bottom 60% of income earners do not earn even a third of
The total income and the top 20% of income earners earn more than the bottom 60% (Bessant & Watts 2001:303). The distribution of wealth in Australia is on par with that in the USA, a bit less even that in the UK, and considerably less even than in Scandinavian Countries like Sweden, Finland, and Norway. On the whole, it is safe to say that income distribution in Australia is more remarkable for its inequality than for anything else (Gilding 2003, Bessant & Watts 2001, Encel & Berry 1987:87)

Egalitarianism is directly affected by the amount of representation the working class has in government institutions. In 1913, following the federal elections in Australia, Vladimir Ilich Lenin wrote:
What a peculiar capitalist country this is in which Labor predominates in the Upper House and recently predominated in the Lower House and yet the Capitalist system does not suffer any danger...
The Australian Labor Party does not even claim to be a Socialist Party. As a matter of fact it is a liberal-bourgeois party, and the so-called Liberals in Australia are really Conservatives...
Naturally, when Australia is finally developed and consolidated as an independent capitalist State the conditions of the workers will change, as also will the Liberal Labor Party which will make way for a Socialist Labor Party. Australia serves to illustrate the conditions under which exceptions to the rule are possible. The rule is: A socialist Labor Party in a capitalist country. The exception is: A Liberal Labor Party which only arises for a short time as a result of the conditions which are abnormal for capitalism.
These remarkable words seem as true today as they were almost 100 years ago albeit Lenin's prophecy of an emergence of a truly 'Socialist Labor Party' has been proved false. Australia today is indeed a country in which the Liberals are in fact Conservative, and the Labor party is Liberal. This means that the working class and the less fortunate hardly receive any representation in federal or state institutions.
Access to secondary and tertiary education is another significant factor in facilitating social mobility. Australia's public schools aim to offer all students a 'fair go' at 'completing a full secondary education (Vickers 2004). While this is indeed a 'fair' chance, it is hardly one that could be described as 'equal'; 'nothing can erase the advantages of having well-educated parents when it comes to feeling fully 'at home' with the academic curriculum of the high school' (Ibid). In addition, it appears that in all Australian states, parents who can afford it transfer their children to private schools at the end of primary school (Ibid).
This results in prospering private (or selective) schools who offer their paying students facilities and teaching quality that are usually not available in public schools (Ibid). While the education received in private school is not necessarily better, it is more likely for graduates to find a place in the workforce or their desired undergraduate program. This tendency is also typical of other countries in which private education Is available such as the USA and the UK (Ibid). In the last year, the Howard Government allowed universities to increase tuition fees by 25% and thus made it even harder for students from a lower economic background to acquire tertiary education. (Sharp 2004) As is apparent from data published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics the lack of adequate education and language difficulties are some of the main causes for inability to find work in Australia (ABS 6105.0 2004:8).

Some would say that while the distribution of wealth in Australia is unequal, its Egalitarianism is demonstrated in the 'fluidity' of its social structure, a 'fluidity' that facilitates social mobility and enables any individual to rise above his/her initial social class (Gilding 2003). 'The fact that the children of rich parents have better economic prospects than the children of poor parents ("inequality of opportunity") is generally thought to be one of the weak points of modern capitalist societies. However, the ability of the descendants of poor families to eventually become rich and the descendants of rich families to eventually become poor ("social mobility") is commonly considered to be one of the strong points of these societies' (Phelan 2003). Some critics would say that the mere analysis of society as an open competition between individuals 'reflects the dominant ideology of capitalism' (Abercrombie & Hill 1984:88) and does not even aim to enhance just and viable equality.

As Associate Michael Gilding points out, Social Mobility in Australian society is not remarkably more prevalent than in any other European or North American country, and that while there is a certain degree of mobility- most of it is 'between adjacent positions'(Graetz & McAllister in Gilding 2003); between jobs of a similar nature. And so 'occupational inheritance' (Ibid) prevails in many cases.


While it is arguable that Australians always regarded other Australians as equal, it is certain that Australians have not always regarded all citizens of Australia as Australians; while an Australian "Jack" may as well be as good as is master, it seems that Zhang, Kimba, and even "Jack's" own Sheila are often not as fortunate.

The fact that Australia has shifted from an Anglo-Christian exclusion policy rooted in the 1850's through a Euro-Centric vision of pre 1970s to a declared policy of Multiculturalism is not enough to qualify it as an exemplar of equality and fairness, and, in any case, the legend of Australian Egalitarianism was established before these wrongs were abolished.

Australia is second only to the US in its unequal distribution of wealth, and thus it would be hard to say that it is a remarkably egalitarian country, if not the opposite. Social mobility is possible, but it would be difficult to argue that this mobility is institutionalised; in fact it is probable that, more often than not, a person who manages to transcend his initial class in Australian society does so despite, and not thanks to, the prevailing legal, social, and economic institutions. It is important to note that this is true to any other country that encourages free enterprise, of which inequality is an inherent- and even desired- consequence.

As the Australian (and Global) economy is based less on agriculture and manufacturing, and increasingly on services and information (Barr 2000), it becomes progressively challenging for people without education or access from early age to information technologies to transcend their social status. Ironically, as Information technology becomes more pervasive it increases the ideological influence held by those already in power, be it economic or political (if there is still a difference between the two). This, in turn, works to reinforce the false consciousness of Australian Egalitarianism.

Australian egalitarianism is unique only by virtue of its existence; it derives its significance from the fact that Australians believe they live in an egalitarian society. More than it is anything else, the concept of Australian Egalitarianism is a fantasy promoted by the powers that be in order to preserve their hegemony. To borrow from Herbert Marcuse, Australians are 'tamed and domesticated' through the belief that Australia is an egalitarian society. It is not uncanny that the most prevalent discourse of this Egalitarianism is found in 19th century fiction. This conception is based, at best, on historical truths that have been taken out of context and otherwise on pure myth.


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