Leadership | Diversity | Inclusion

Human dignity the starting point for discussions on inequality

Fundamental ethical questions lie at the heart of questions we need to resolve around inequality, according to the Ethics Centre Executive Director, Dr Simon Longstaff AO. And, he said, the starting point for any discussion on inequality should be the basic presumption of the intrinsic dignity of every person.

Dr Longstaff, contributing author to CEDA’s latest research publication, How unequal? Insights on inequality addressed a release event for the publication in Brisbane. He was joined by CEDA Chief Economist, Jarrod Ball and Queensland Minister for Education and Industrial Relations, the Hon. Grace Grace.

In the report, CEDA has analysed Australia’s position on inequality, considering whether Australians enjoy equality of opportunity and how inequality might change in the future.

In his keynote address, Dr Longstaff recounted a recent visit to the Pilbara town of Port Headland, which highlights the sorts of questions we need to address about inequality.

“Despite the vast amount of wealth that is present in that community, you have people who live in an area called the Two-Mile; our fellow citizens who live without sewerage, without water, without food because they’ve been displaced from the more settled areas,” Dr Longstaff said.

“How is it possible that in 2018 our fellow citizens live like this?

“It doesn’t matter your level of education, your gender, your cultural background, your age – none of these things matter. Every human being is a person, which is a moral category of being that has intrinsic dignity. It is never able to be reduced merely to a means to be exploited for economic or political or other purposes.”

He said the greatest problem was inequality of opportunity. He noted a growing sense that disparity of opportunity means people no longer believe that this basic assumption of society is true.

As a result, he said, people are becoming angry and frustrated. This can be seen in turbulence in the political system, distrust of intuitions and attractiveness of populist politicians.

“I don’t think that anybody actually expects a commitment to equality to amount to sameness,” Dr Longstaff said.

“They don’t expect everybody to be the same – in fact I think people glory in the differences that exist between us – and I don’t think that anybody seriously expects that a commitment to equality will actually give rise to equal outcomes for all.

“People recognise that there are variations that are produced by different degrees of focus, commitment, effort, there’s a range of things that will make a difference. Some people just don’t want to achieve ends that others seek to pursue.

“But what everybody does understand is that everybody should be given an equal chance, they should all start at the same point.

“And that’s the problem. Those children in Port Headland don’t have an equal chance.”   

CEDA chief economist, Jarrod Ball said the findings of the CEDA report indicated that, in some areas, Australia has not done enough to ensure equality of opportunity.

Mr Ball drew on the report’s findings and recommendations to explain that, while concerns about inequality have intensified since the global financial crisis, measures of inequality have not risen.

However, he said, there are other important issues to consider. These include slow wages growth, an intergenerational gap in wealth and concerns for the future prosperity of those employed in the gig economy.

“It’s natural to question the distribution of economic growth at a time when wages growth is sluggish and income growth is stagnant,” he said. 

“Our report outlines compelling evidence of geographic disadvantage. In Queensland, six per cent of SLAs account for almost 50 per cent of the greatest disadvantage in the state for indicators like long-term unemployment prison admissions, low family income and disengaged young adults.”

He said gaps have also opened in intergenerational wealth. In the last decade, the wealth of older generations has increased more rapidly. Younger households have seen declining home ownership and higher overall indebtedness.

Recommendations in the CEDA report reiterate previous CEDA research calling for measures to improve the affordability of housing for young Australians.

With contingent workers now making up one per cent of the workforce and growing exponentially, there are also concerns for these workers’ future wealth.

“These workers fall outside of common employment arrangements like superannuation. Given the potential for future economic insecurity in retirement income gaps we’ve recommended the government explore the adequacy of superannuation, pension and savings products for contingent workers,” he said.

Queensland Minister for Education and Industrial Relations, the Hon. Grace Grace linked education with equality of opportunity. She outlined some of the Queensland Government’s initiatives aimed at preventing disadvantaged students leaving school.

“We know that a well-rounded good quality education has far reaching benefits,” Ms Grace said.

“We know that education is the path to a strong and successful economy. It is the basis for an economic environment that creates jobs and drives the economic growth of our nation.

“That is a goal we all share; a strong and prosperous future for Queensland, for Australia and of course for all of its citizens. But to reach that goal tomorrow we need to ensure our students are well educated today.”

View videos of speakers' presentations and panel discussion here.