“… a moral choice at least as much as an economic one”

Today’s Guest Poster is Dr Hugh Mackay, who has kindly given The Pub permission to republish the following article, first published on 14th August, 2004 by the “West Australian”. Our thanks to Dr Mackay, and also to Catalyst who sent us a copy of the article some weeks ago.

Drive for US model or Aussie fair go for all?
The Moral Maze
by Hugh Mackay

“You see a bloke driving a Rolls-Royce in America, you say, ‘I’ll have one of those one day’. But sometimes the old Australian (attitude) resents the fact that somebody else has got it. Now, I think that’s changing.”
– John Howard

In a recent interview with the Sydney morning Herald, the Prime Minister expressed warm approval for a change he believes has come over our society: he sees us as more entrepreneurial, more aspirational and “more like America”.

He has special praise for young people who he believes are more upwardly mobile than previous generations, and he plans to develop policies that will encourage us to become a nation of small-business people.

The aspiration to own a Rolls-Royce might once have been gently mocked as evidence of unbridled greed or envy. But in the new economic order, such avaricious motives have become economic virtues because they fuel the engine that drives the mass market. Materialism may not be good for the soul, but it’s good for the economy.

There’s an ethical dimension to this whole debate about aspirations, upward mobility and extravagance. If we were, indeed, to take the US as our model, we’d be looking at a fundamentally different society from the one many of us have dreamt of becoming. Do we want the sickening gap between the top and bottom of society that defines America, with an underclass of “working poor” apparently institutionalised beyond redemption?

Success is one thing; elbowing each other out of the way in our struggle to reach the top of the heap is another. And the economic heap in Australia has become very tall indeed: never before in our history has the distance from top to bottom been as great as it is now. No one would deny the value of enterprise and ambition. But the idea of a grasping, acquisitive society is at odds with the long-standing Australian ideal of an egalitarian society committed to equity, fairness and special consideration for those who are marginalised or disadvantaged by disability, poverty, incompetence, lack of intelligence or sheer bad luck.

That doesn’t mean a society in which everyone has the same amount of money or the same economic status. But every society must make a moral choice: will we encourage untrammelled greed and economic survival of the fittest or will we accept, via the tax and welfare systems, serious responsibility for the wellbeing of those who will never make it on their own, let alone become “entrepreneurial”, no matter how hard they try?

There’s another society the PM didn’t mention – Denmark – that has adopted a radically different approach from America’s when it comes to the distribution of wealth. The Danes don’t just choose nice princesses; they also choose egalitarianism.

Newsweek reported recently that 38 per cent of Denmark’s total income goes to the middle 40 per cent of the population, and the richest 20 per cent of Danes have only 2.9 times more disposable income than the poorest 20 per cent. In Australia, by contrast, the richest 20 per cent of households have 14 times the income of the poorest 20 per cent.

The highly-taxed Danes devote almost one-third of their GDP to “social transfers” that subsidise things like health and education for low-income families.

This redistribution of wealth has created something close to a nation of middle-income people; it has also created a remarkable degree of social stability.

We don’t have to emulate Denmark, but neither do we have to emulate the US. What we must do, sooner or later, is decide whether we want an egalitarian, broadly middle-class society or not.

And because that’s a decision affecting the wellbeing of millions of Australians, it’s a moral choice at least as much as an economic one.


492 thoughts on ““… a moral choice at least as much as an economic one”

  1. kirsdarke

    It’s dark enough as it is. I really don’t want to start making weapons and jackboots. I think I’d rather go to Manus.

  2. leonetwo,

    Sky News is reporting the Carbon Tax repeal legislation in the Senate is being pushed back and will not likely be considered before 14 July, after a report into Direct Action is tabled.
    You commented some time ago on the chaos this could cause. Seems it is about to happen.

  3. What other ways? Government by regulation, most likely. If the senate knocks something back you have the relevant minister come up with a regulation that will do the same thing, the GG signs it and it becomes law. Regulations do not have to go to the reps and the senate for voting.This governent has resorted to this tactic a few times on asylum seeker issues and has come unstuck, withdrawing one ahead of a high court challenge. If they try this tactic the senate will most likely move to have those regulations disallowed.

  4. Barry J
    I think I said Abbott would be lucky to get his carbon tax repeal through before September. Look at the dates –
    The senate will sit next week and the week after, until Thursday 17 July. Then there is a break until 26 August, when the senate returns for seven sitting days, until 4 September. Then there is another two week break. There is a lot to be debated in that time.

    The government seems to have stopped huffing and puffing about imposing extra senate sitting days. The penny must have dropped. Even Abetz must have finally realised that the senate, not the government and certainly not him, sets the sitting timetable and a vote has to be taken on including any extra sessions. I can’t see the senate voting for such a daft idea.

  5. 24 just had ‘Zed’ on. I’m surprised he’s up and around at this time of day.

    Australia’s laziest politician.

  6. gravel

    I can well imagine that some people would overdo it. At the same time I’m not sure I quite see the suffering unless clothes are too tight or too warm or obstructive. I know dogs seem to be happy with coats on and horses don’t appear to mind their blankets. But maybe they’re uncomfortable with sweating; and we just don’t realise it.

  7. gigilene

    I put this up because I thought we could all do with a bit of a giggle every now and then. I don’t know that I agree or disagree with dressing animals, although I’d hate to see any ill effects. Hunter wears a coat outside when it is really cold, but as soon as he comes in he carries on until we take it off.

  8. gravel

    Thanks for the giggle. I particularly liked the hamster in his little vest. Come to think of it, there could be some “ill effects”. I’m thinking more of psychological ones. They might feel less of a being when dressed up, just like we would feel less of a person if you had to wear some sort of sack on our backs.

  9. Another book on Julia Gillard and it reveals how she really though about the ‘Ditch the Witch’ thing.

    In a new book, Gravity, by Gold Walkley award-winning journalist and former Victorian government minister Mary Delahunty, Julia Gillard speaks frankly for the first time about the significance of these gendered attacks on her authority as PM, and reveals her hurt and surprise that so many commentators and citizens stayed silent.
    ‘Were you shocked by that?’ I asked her. ‘Yeah I was a bit.’

    Julia Gillard shifted in her easy chair and her voice softened. She had never revealed this before. Here in her private suite the pause seemed to echo. This topic was edging perilously close to the personal, a place Julia Gillard PM usually steered away from. The black handbag and spare pair of heels sitting on the carpet next to the big desk spoke of a different form of leadership, definitely lonelier. I was wondering about the bruises those crude placards had left on the woman, but the prime minister protected herself with analysis.

    ‘I wasn’t shocked that some people had those sentiments, not shocked by that, but shocked that it was so visibly called forth into the public debate and that it didn’t get the sort of odium from mainstream commentators that it should have,’ she said.
    When I asked was she surprised that women politicians (Liberals Bronwyn Bishop and Sophie Mirabella) stood on the podium with Abbott in front of those signs, her answer was firm and fast ‘NO’ accompanied by a low, hard laugh.

    Running through anti-carbon tax rallies and other campaigns—including the lurid allegations that as a solicitor two decades prior she was involved in an Australian Workers Union slush fund organised by a former lover—was the implied smear that she was an illegitimate prime minister, that she had no morality and somehow her immorality was linked to her gender.

    Lancing a leader by calling her a liar is designed to destroy trust. Trust is crucial currency for any politician. ‘Liar’ is is regarded as such a damaging word that its use is forbidden in parliament


  10. It got some criticism but not the blitzkrieg that it should have. If you put it in the context of race, if I’d been the first Indigenous person to do this job and Tony Abbott stood in front of signs saying, ‘Ditch the Black Bastard’ I think that would have been the end of Tony Abbott as a viable candidate in public life and it would be the subject of community outrage that would have lasted for months and months. Yet it didn’t have that same effect.


    Interesting point by Julia Gillard.

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