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Thursday, 30 April 1987
Page: 2355

Mr STAPLES(10.20) —This society and this economy is undergoing the most drastic restructuring and renewal in living memory. We are not alone. The same is happening in many other countries, East and West. In some cases these are major trading partners. In other cases, many comparable Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries underwent such restructuring years ago. It is a mark of our own ignorance and living in bliss approach to life, manifested through a combination of poor government, poor corporate management and an unwillingness and unpreparedness to look to the future and take the tough decisions, that today, as we suffer the resultant fall in our living standards and national income, we are looking for where we have gone wrong.

But it is not too late and over the past few years we have realised our needs and new direction and taken steps to reconcile our differences, recover from the recession of 1981-82 and start to reconstruct a new economy. On Easter Saturday, 18 April, at the Australian Humanists National Convention, I called for an inquiry into wealth and income distribution in Australia. I wish briefly to put before the Parliament tonight an outline of reasons why such an inquiry should proceed and how it should be conducted. First, the issue of distribution, accumulation and use of wealth and income in Australia has never before been comprehensively and independently put together in our 200 year history. There have been many surveys and studies on different aspects of wealth, income and property but these have always been only pieces of the jigsaw. To further complicate matters, the picture on the jigsaw is also changing and, let us face it, there are many missing pieces. We do not even know who owns them.

We all know to some extent the maldistribution of wealth and income in Australia. One has only to drive for 30 minutes across any Australian city to see graphic evidence of that. I suspect, for example, that the wealthiest 150,000-or one per cent of Australians-own enough wealth to supply a modest home and small car for the families of three million Australians. We also know that some people can afford to bet $20 million at the races in a weekend's fun while 40,000 Australians tonight will not have a home to sleep in. We know that the big corporate bosses fly around in their private jets while they call loudly for cuts in welfare spending and wages so that the ordinary Australian has to spend more of his pension or wage on the train fare or ride to work.

There is an obscene maldistribution of wealth, income and property in this country and the people and the Government of this country need to know the details. Without the details of wealth, income and property distribution, we cannot conduct informed public debate or develop effective and equitable government policy. It is as simple as that. Without the details of wealth, income and property distribution, we are forced back to our own prejudices and are unarmed against vested interests and powerful forces. As I said at the outset, our economy and society are undergoing rapid change. The pace is fast and needs to be and the effects will have a profound influence on our society.

The old wealth generators-property, agriculture and mining-will still be there but their influence is likely to be diminished by growth in manufactures, services and technology. Wealth and income will come from new sources and our economy and government policy will need to reflect these changing dimensions, patterns and distributions. The sweat of the worker as the means of production will be replaced by the microchip. Without changes to redistributive economic policies, we will continue down the path of division and mal-distribution of income, government development and community support. As a society, government and business, we need to know more about these changes and then let the political parties and the community determine the needs and uses of the nation's wealth. We know so little about our current distribution of wealth, income and property. Today in this changing society and economy we need, more than ever before, to know how many own how much? What is being done with it? What should be done with it? This must apply to personal as well as corporate wealth.

I propose a wealth inquiry as an urgent need. It should be as independent and credible as possible. We need an independent commission of inquiry with its term of reference based largely but not exclusively on the following things. Firstly, we need to find out what the current situation is. There are various government and non-government sources available of mixed value. The commission would need to determine new sources of information. We need to get more information on trends in the changes in ownership of wealth and income. Secondly, we need to find out how wealth and income is being developed and accumulated and what the relationship is between wealth, income and consumption in Australia. Also, how does the current public policy reflect the equitable distribution of public resources and collection of public revenue?

Thirdly, we need to study nationally the effects of the distribution of the nation's wealth and income on our society and economy-who are the winners and losers and who is paying for what. Fourthly, the commission of inquiry would also need to be able to provide a basis of ongoing evaluative information, so that government policy and the community's needs, concerns and perspectives can be better balanced and tuned as our economy and society changes further and faster.