Economic inequality in Australia

Frank Stilwell

The recent release of the report on 'The State of the World's Wealth' by Merrill Lynch and Capgemini reveals the relentless rise in riches. There are now 9.5 million people worldwide who have over $1 million in financial assets. 160,600 are in Australia, a jump of over 10 per cent since 2006.

Top business executives have been doing particularly well. A University of Sydney study, examining the incomes of chief executives in the top fifty-one companies who are members of the Business Council of Australia, shows that their average cash remuneration was sixty-three times the average annual earnings of full-time Australian workers in 2005. It had been a mere nineteen times the average wage in 1990.

Meanwhile, poverty persists - at least relative to the general standard of living - despite the greater affluence of society as a whole. Particular groups, defined according to ethnicity, gender, location and socio-economic status, face persistent problems of economic marginalisation and social exclusion.

Other recent figures, issued by the Australian Bureau Statistics, indicate a growing gulf between rich and poor. The top 10 per cent of houselds raised their average incomes by $139 a week between 2004 and 2006 while lower income households (in the second and third deciles) got an average of only $24.

Even more striking than the disparities in income are the inequalities in the distribution of wealth - financial and physical assets, such as cash, shares and real estate. In 2005-06 the wealthiest 20 per cent of households had 61 per cent of the total Australian household wealth, while the poorest 20 per cent had just 1 per cent of the total between them. Should this gulf between rich and poor be a matter of public concern? There are strong social, economic, political and environmental reasons for thinking so.

"This issue is particularly pertinent in the context of WorkChoices, of course, since inequalities are bound to increase if this set of new industrial relations rules is allowed to persist."

Major economic inequalities impede the development of a contented society. If people's perception of their happiness is judged according to what they have relative to others, then economic inequality is a recipe for widespread and permanent social discontent. The emerging social science of 'happiness research' shows that more affluence is not, in general, making societies happier. Because people's wellbeing depends on their relative position in society, as well as their absolute living standards, we have to give more attention to distributional issues in pursuit of social progress.