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Monday, 27 September 1999
Page: 10535

Mr ROSS CAMERON (3:24 PM) —I rise as a member of the government with a deep affinity with working Australians and with the battlers to whom the member for Rankin was referring. My own origins have something of the battler about them. My grandfather was a blacksmith who was ultimately made redundant by the advent of the motor vehicle and spent most of the last decade of his life as an itinerant labourer, finding work wherever he might. My maternal grandfather was a farmer who ultimately left the land with virtually nothing. He now lives a very humble life, but nonetheless he worked hard throughout his life. We battled. My father was a high school drop-out. I have never belonged to the ranks of the capitalists. We have never owned a great deal. We have struggled to pay off the mortgage of the family home. Yet I inherited something very precious and valuable. What was handed down to me was a legacy of values. While I have been an imperfect exponent of those values, they have nonetheless stood me in good stead.

It is true that there is inequality of income in Australia. But I do not necessarily associate inequality of outcomes with disadvantage. The Access Economics report on poverty in Australia, which the member for Rankin referred to, does note differences in distribution of income in Australia. It also notes that the percentage of Australians living in poverty fell in the decade from 1984 to 1994. It notes that the richest 30 per cent of the Australian population experienced the largest increase in income taxes of that percentile in any OECD country in the last 20 years.

Our objective is not to create perfect equality, which is a concept which ought to be reserved to the province of mathematics and physics. Our objective is to create the sort of community in which people who aspire to improve their lives have the opportunity to do so. This government recognises that early intervention has an important role to play in that regard. The evidence in studies such as the High/Scope Perry Preschool Study, which the member for Rankin referred to, provide fairly compelling evidence about the effectiveness of early intervention.

This government has shifted the ship of state towards intervention at an early age rather than the predominantly curative measures that were necessary under the former government precisely because its policies created so many of the problems which needed cure. In pure expenditure terms, this government is spending $1 billion a year to support families under the family tax initiative, $1.1 billion for child care in 1998-99, $280 million for the Staying at Home package for carers, $25.6 million for partnerships against domestic violence and over $40 million for the youth suicide prevention strategy and the National Council for the Prevention of Child Abuse.

That is in broad social policy, but literacy and numeracy will be the field regarded as a crowning achieving of this government and, in particular, of the Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Dr Kemp. His principal legacy is the focus on literacy and numeracy which he has brought to the Australian education system. It was his inspired individual leadership which in 1998 produced for the first time in Australian history a national agreement on literacy standards. This government in 1998 committed $84 million over three years precisely for the preventive literacy and numeracy work which was so absent in the former government.

Likewise, in other fields of policy, this government is not just discovering early intervention; it has been a feature of our policy work since we came to government. For example, the Minister for Justice and Customs recently released a report titled Pathways to prevention: developmental and early intervention approaches to crime in australia, which outlines the work of 10,000 different community programs based around the concept of early intervention. So I have no difficulty whatsoever in defending the government's record in the area of early intervention, and suggest to members of the opposition that they are somewhat late starters in this field.

I turn to the first paragraph of the member's motion which calls on the House to express its concern about widening inequality in Australia. I want to do something today which is a bit heretical, but I genuinely stand up and defend inequality. There is something rich and lovable in the Australian egalitarian instinct. While the American soul gravitates towards liberty as its touchstone, the Australian looks to fairness. Concepts of mateship and `a fair go' are rightly regarded as emblematic to the Australian idea. The origins of the phrase `fair go' can be traced, the historians tell us, to the game of two-up, played in the colonies as early as 1804. In two-up circles, the cry `fair go' was used to indicate that the rules of wagering had been satisfied and to enjoin that the coins should be spun properly. Our ethos involves an intolerance of social pretension, a healthy irreverence for authority, and a sacred belief that every man or woman is entitled to fair treatment before the law.

That should not, however, be confused with the fatuous and disreputable doctrine of social justice. As the historian McIntyre pointed out, the Australian concepts of equity and a fair go mean something less than equality. Equality does not have a lot of horsepower, in my opinion, as an analytical or moral tool. Similarly, inequality per se should not be accepted without question as a symptom of moral or societal failure. In fact, I would argue that the presence of some measure of inequality of outcome is essential to the preservation of a just society, and in doing so I believe that that proposition cannot be opposed, except by a reduction in the human freedoms and the individual liberties which are also essential to the Australian identity.

It is argued that there is something morally wrong in one person living well while his neighbour lives poorly. In my mind, the greater offence would be to force all Australians to live at the same material standard, regardless of their gifts, regardless of their industry, regardless of their contribution or their willingness to shoulder responsibility and accept risk. We live in an open, free, competitive society which creates and respects a space within which private citizens can make private decisions. It has been suggested by an American philosopher that civilisation is the progress of society towards privacy; the savage's whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe; civilisation is the process of setting man free from man.

On any Saturday morning most Australians enjoy a measure of civilised freedom. They can go to the office and do some overtime or they can go to the RSL club and play the pokies. They can put a little extra in their superannuation fund or they can buy another carton of fags. They can paint the house and work on plans for an extension or they can go down to the TAB and put a good bet on a tip at Randwick. I am not making any judgment about the moral quality of the choice. I simply observe that every human choice has consequences.

The idea that inequality of itself is a moral problem is ghastly in its overtones. It relegates human beings to a state of powerlessness before their circumstances which, aside from being insulting and demeaning, is patently untrue. There is a statistical correlation between poverty and a range of negative life outcomes, such as poor health, illiteracy, unemployment and life prospects generally. It is not true that poverty determines those outcomes. In the 1998 BRW list of the top 20 rich Australians, seven of the top 20 were immigrants or sons of immigrants who came to Australia with nothing.

Human beings are not automatons, undifferentiated by skill, by will, by talent or by virtue. One cannot compel industry. At the same time, we must take steps to ensure access to opportunity. This government is rightly focused on early intervention but, in the same way that Pauline Hanson is not the mother of all Australian children, the Commonwealth is not the father.