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Centenary of Federation: academic claims Australia has become less egalitarian since 1901

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Tuesday 2 January 2001


Centenary of Federation: academic claims Australia has become less egalitarian since 1901



COMPERE: With the start of this year's Federation celebrations, much is being said about Australia as an egalitarian nation. 


JOHN HOWARD: We embrace, from the British, the great principles of the rule of law and Parliamentary democracy, but we rejected from the British, and other Europeans, notions of class-consciousness. The great egalitarian spirit of this country, which has meant so much to us over the years, and will mean so much to us in the years ahead, that is very much a gift of this soil, it is a gift of the air we breath together, it is a gift of the land that we share together. 


COMPERE: The Prime Minister John Howard is among those who believe Australia is a country in which all people are given a fair go.  


But is Australia a fairer society than it was 100 years ago? Duncan Waterson is a former professor of modern history at Macquarie University in Sydney and the author of numerous books on Australian political history; he told John Stewart Australia is not becoming a fairer nation. 


JOHN STEWART: A lot is being said during the Federation celebrations about Australia being an inclusive society where all people share in the wealth of the nation. Has Australia become more or less egalitarian since 1901? 


DUNCAN WATERSON: Well I think it's become rather less egalitarian. Of course in some respects the general standard of living has risen and there are now safety nets and unemployment benefits, and a whole range of governmental services which certainly didn't exist in 1901, bearing in mind that of course Australia was emerging from a horrendous depression and a devastating drought. 

But in terms of the share of the national wealth and the gross national product, probably we're more uneven now than we were in 1901. 


JOHN STEWART: Were the winners and losers of Australian society in 1901 roughly the same groups of winners and losers in society today? For example, poorer people making up most of the prison population, or wealthier people enjoying a better education and better health. 


DUNCAN WATERSON: Yes I think that's true. You could argue that the marginalised groups in gaol, and we have a tremendously high prison population - Aboriginals, people of less education, people of - particularly of that sort of rural and deprived group, that One Nation was so concerned to exploit, are still with us and perhaps in terms of frustration, growing. 


JOHN STEWART: What would the architects of Federation be pleased or disappointed about if they could see Australia today? 


DUNCAN WATERSON: Many of them would not be happy with the present composition of the Australian population, or with, dare I say it, the apparent inability of Australians to engage in further democratic structural change 

quite radical, in terms of voting procedures, secret ballots, votes for women, the construction of constitutions and so on. We don't seem to have continued that perhaps in that same old radical, liberal tradition that our grandfathers and great-grandfathers did. 


COMPERE: Professor Duncan Waterson from Macquarie University, talking to John Stewart.