Matter of Public Importance about Inequality

11 November 2016

Mister Speaker,

In medicine, I am used to dealing with reality, but it seems I have been dealing with a fantasy world in here today—after what I have been hearing from the other side. This is a matter of public importance that is very important to me and to the kids I have been looking after for many years.

In his seminal book, The End of Certainty, the journalist and thinker Paul Kelly identified egalitarianism as one of the six pillars of what he and others have called the Australian settlement. The other pillars were a faith in government authority, centralised wage fixation, protection for industry and jobs, dependence on a great power for our security and finance, and, above all, a hostility to our location, as exhibited by the fear of external domination and internal contamination. The former great Prime Minister Paul Keating was able to rightly say, in 1996, after the social, cultural and economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, that the essentially introspective, defensive and dependent framework had crumbled. But 20 years on, I am not so sure. Much of what was nasty, short-sighted or selfish about the Australian settlement of the 1900s seems to be making a comeback. The question for us today is, can that faux nostalgia for those imaginary, safer, better times return in some new mutated and malignant form?

It seems to me that the dark but enticing promise of a new age of populism will fail only because of the sixth principle of the Australian settlement—egalitarianism has continued to work as a moderating influence. Because of its permeating influence, Australia does not have the same horrendous disparities of income and wealth that we see elsewhere in the world. We are far from perfect, it is true, and we are heading in the wrong direction. But because reforming governments here have tempered their zeal for economic reform and greater efficiency with a solid commitment to protecting those harmed or hurt by change, we have a solid chance of saving ourselves from our own worst instincts. That certainly was the case in the Hawke and Keating years and it, too, was a hallmark of the Rudd and Gillard governments as they struggled with the shock and consequences of the GFC and were able to bring us through successfully.

Egalitarianism is not perfect. It has its weaknesses. It can be very blokey and, unfortunately, invariably seems to stop at our borders. It is a weak reed—a weak defence against baser urges, but it did and it does matter. In particular, I would like to focus on two main areas: health and housing. There are many other areas of inequality but health and housing are the two most important and dear to my heart. It is my view that without access to good quality health care and housing it is almost impossible for families to function appropriately in our society. This means that children are born of low birth weight, often have nutritional problems during pregnancy, there is substance abuse and lack of a stable environment. It makes them very prone to neuro-developmental outcomes that follow on.

Martin Luther King said that discrimination in health care is the worst form of discrimination. I recently visited the Nagle Centre in Campbelltown, a wonderful community asset run by the St Vincent de Paul Society. I was appalled by the number of people living on the streets who attend to just simple things: hot showers, food, psychological support, and sometimes just someone who cares about them.

Equality in access to health care is fast becoming a dream for many Australians. I was recently contacted by an 86-year-old gentleman suffering from bilateral cataracts who had been on the public waiting list for over a year, yet he was told that if he could afford $4,000 to $5,000 he could have the operation next week. Waiting lists in my electorate for ear surgery for children with hearing loss are now over one year, which affects schooling and speech development and long-term outcomes. This is not the Australia I want for my grandchildren.

In housing, almost one in 200 Australians are homeless and 200,000 households are on social housing waiting lists. In his inquiry in the last parliament the member for Bennelong demonstrated that there are things that need to be done for housing affordability. For his trouble he was removed and his inquiry was shut down.

I have spoken about these major areas of inequality. Many people feel that they are being ignored by governments, and particularly our government, in having equity in our society. It is easy to understand why. Australians have always regarded themselves as egalitarian. I do think we all want an inclusive society. However, if we are to reverse recent trends away from equality it will take active policies from the government rather than the laissez-faire attitude demonstrated to date, both in health care, in housing and in many other ways.