In Conversation with Andrew Leigh

Author of ‘Carving with the Grain’


Interview and article by Alice Stafford


Andrew Leigh is the current Shadow Minister for Treasury and Charities, he first entered the Australian House of Representatives with the Labor Party in 2010. Andrew currently serves as the Labor Member for Fenner. Alongside his political career, Andrew is an author and former economics professor at the Australian National University. His publications have been featured extensively across Australian and international media outlets – notably, The Australian, The Australian Financial Review, The Economist, The New York Times, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.


Andrew’s article, Carving with the Grain, is featured in the 2020 edition of the Evatt Journal. 


How does your professional life align with the work of the Evatt Foundation?


I’ve spent most of my life working on poverty and inequality. As a PhD student I did my thesis on essays on poverty and inequality, and as an ANU professor I worked on poverty and inequality. It’s what inspired me to enter the parliament and led me to write Battlers and Billionaires in 2013 and Innovation + Equality in 2019. It's a lifelong passion and something that Evatt has done terrific work on.


What are the key takeaways from your article?


COVID-19 has made inequality worse, and the challenge coming out of the crisis is to ensure that the most disadvantaged are looked after. I’m really concerned about a whole range of ways in which this slump could exacerbate the gap between the rich and poor in Australia. We know that in schools we have seen a rising gap between the most affluent and least affluent students. We know that in terms of the exposure to the virus, particularly in the United States, it has been disproportionately the most vulnerable who have been affected. And, we need to make sure that those young Australians who have lost their jobs don’t find themselves at the back of the queue when it comes to rebuilding the economy.


In the article you say, “we need to think anew about how to couch the problem and craft the solutions”.  Do you have a vision of how we could go about crafting such a solution?


Emphasizing the link between egalitarianism and community, one of the things we saw through the crisis was that sense of social solidarity as Australians reached out to those around them – an increasing body of research is showing that the gap between the rich and poor is highly linked to the strength of our social fabric. We need to do more to ensure that building social capital is a progressive agenda. 


How can we practically apply some of the ideas from your article to this current climate?


If Trump, Brexit and COVID have taught us anything it's that no one has the perfect crystal ball. So, we want to make sure that we’re more adept at dealing with dangerous shocks than we have been in the past. Building a stronger social safety net is important for the most vulnerable. If we face a downturn, affluent Australians can often fall back on their own resources, but it is the most vulnerable Australians who are most in need of an effective government – so if governments don’t stockpile PPE, if governments don’t have the fiscal wherewithal to step in and support jobs – then it's the most vulnerable who get hurt first. 


For those reading your article, how can individual members of a community work together to prevent levels of inequality from worsening?


I’ve always seen politics as being part of the community rather than separate from it. I don’t think there is a strange rarefied realm in which political conversations are going on that is divorced from the activities of everyday Australians. It's all one and the same. The more people get involved in politics the better for progressive causes. Progressives have always believed politics should be a mass sport, not an elite activity – that’s why we’re the vanguard of ensuring women have the right to vote, extending the vote to Indigenous Australians – and so that democratic conversation needs to be as broad and deep as possible. This is a moment with a lot of potential. I’m sure if Doc Evatt was around, he wouldn't simply be looking at how we restore the Australia of 2019, instead he would be asking the question of how we can manage to rebuild better. 


Andrew’s full article can be found here

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