Leadership | Diversity | Inclusion

Holistic approach needed to address inequality

“One of the biggest things that's wrong with policy is that we divide the life of people up into segments,” Jesuit Social Services Chair, Patricia Faulkner AO has told a CEDA audience.

Speaking at the launch of How unequal? Insights on inequality, contributing author Ms Faulkner said, “we aren't prepared to step back and say does this work and are things improving and what do we want to see improving.”

“We're prepared to look at statistics that show what a good story we can tell.

“Australia can tell the story that it has one of the most targeted welfare systems in the world so that the people who need help get it. 

“But you can also say we have one of the meanest welfare systems in the world because the people who need help are not getting the holistic assistance that they need.

“We can put out statistics…that say we don't have problems but unless we're prepared to peel back and have a look (we don’t know) how is everyone doing. Are we a society that is willing to leave a group of people behind?

“It isn't a hard policy prescription to get into some of those places of disadvantage and to work in a holistic way with the community.

“I think we're asking all the wrong questions and my view is that our job as economists is to make people have a good life and I think at the moment we're all about making money.

“I think that we should be talking about what gives people dignity, what makes people feel safe and are we doing the right things to make people have the dignity that they require.”

Murdoch University, Associate Professor of Education policy and comparative education, Dr Laura Perry discussed equality of opportunity focusing on education. 

“(Education) underpins so many other aspects of society and in other aspects of inequality…in a way it's the foundation of all of these things, and so it's important to pay attention to it and to think about how we can improve it,” she said. 

The OECD  has said that about 17 per cent of Australian students leave secondary school without having basic skills. 

Dr Perry said that these have further implications than just on the individual, for example, they may require welfare payments or be less likely to be a taxpayer.

Dr Perry said the cause of this was not teachers for example, but school segregation.

“School social segregation is one of the key drivers. The fact that we have schools in Australia that are segregated by socioeconomic status is the underlying root cause of all of our problems and therefore it's the underlying root thing we should be attacking.

“Just to give you a sense of this, among OECD countries only three other countries have higher levels of segregated schooling in Australia. It's Israel which has very high-income inequality, Chile which has very high-income inequality and Hungary – they have differentiated secondary schooling…a different scenario than what we have here in Australia.

“The next question is what's the root of the segregated schooling and that's I think a lot to do with funding policy.

“We have policy levers we can use to attack this problem it's just a matter of now finding that the commitment and the energy in the world to do it.

“We should also be trying to work at a preventative level…rather than waiting to try to remedy the situation at the end.

“It costs money.

However, she said: “It's not a matter of spending more money to get a better output, we need to spend our money differently we need to distribute the money between schools differently.” 

UNE Business School, Professor of Management, Professor Alison Sheridan also discussed equality of opportunity, focusing on gender inequality.

“The enduring gender pay gap is something that Australia should not be proud of it's a festering sore on our economy,” she said.

“The fact is…the industries and occupations in which women are found in, are valued less than the work…where men are found and that's got to change.

“One of the risks we face is that…we will see a reinforcement and an entrenchment of inequality where work that is being created will require the sorts of skills etc that have been traditionally valued at higher rates than the work women are found in.

“Until we see ways of increasing the relative value of the industries and occupations in which women work in and we see men's representation in those industries and occupations increase as well, we're not going to address the gender pay gap.” 

CEDA Chief Executive, Melinda Cilento spoke on key findings and recommendations from the report.

“One of the key themes that comes through so much of the research which is that when you look at an aggregate level over a period of time, you get one particular story around which you might have a degree of comfort,” she said.

“Running throughout the chapters in our report is this theme that when you start breaking it down and looking at particular cohorts you often get a very different story. 

“There are pockets of people who are not connected to the prosperity that the broader community is experiencing. You then get these flow-on effects and you end up with this complex scenario of disadvantage.

“In my view one of the biggest problems that we have is a lack of transparency around government spending in programs.

“The lack of transparency around what is actually spent…the effectiveness of those programs allows bad policy to be perpetuated because it's very difficult to run the argument that the stuff isn't working, because no one actually measures it.”

Related content

Research: read and download How unequal? Insights on inequality 
CEO speech: read Melinda Cilento's speech highlighting key themes and findings in the report
Blogs: read a collection of blogs focusing on inequality in education, health, justice and more.