Andrew Leigh: how government can guard against inequality

The inequality gap is growing in Australia and both sides of politics — Left and Right — have a responsibility to close it. The former economist and Labor front-bencher lectured public servants on the challenge.

In late 2001, at the age of 55, the Australian journalist Elisabeth Wynhausen decided to take leave from her job and try life as a low-wage worker. Following in the footsteps of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, Wynhausen’s Dirt Cheap documents her year living in budget accommodation and working at entry-level jobs.

In one job, Wynhausen moved to a country town and worked packing eggs. She earned $14 an hour in a job that started at 6am, left her body aching at the end of the day, and where the smell from the nearby chook sheds was constant. Three weeks in, the manager, a millionaire several times over, came to speak to the workers. He announced that the company was selling its egg division. “It’s not all doom and gloom,” he told them — but they knew their jobs were going. Wynhausen was struck by the fact that none of the workers challenged the manager: “Seeing them standing mute in front of the boss was like seeing them stripped of all defences.”

In another job, Wynhausen worked as a cleaner, noting that her interviewer seemed to treat her “as if one cleaner were the same as another and one cleaning job the same as the next”. She was pleased to get the job immediately, but then realise that she was simply being put on “permanent standby”, to work if other employees were sick or on holidays. Again and again, she witnessed workplaces in which “flexibility” meant that employers had their workers on-call 24/7, but could always cut their shifts if customer demand declined.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a book titled Battlers and Billionaires: The Story of Inequality in Australia. There, I set out to tell Australia’s great egalitarian story — to explore how fairness is woven through our social fabric. In Japanese prisoner-of-war camps, Australians like Weary Dunlop and Tom Uren made sure that our troops shared what they had, and that more of them walked out alive. Unlike other nations, Australians don’t have private areas on our beaches, we call each other mate, and we comfortably sit in the front seats of taxis. On the sporting field, salary caps, player drafts and revenue sharing are all ways of making the game fairer — and more interesting.

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