I am pleased to report that the Evatt Foundation was active throughout the past year in pursuit of the highest ideals of the labour movement. This year, and over the past three years, Evatt’s main thrust has been toward raising consciousness of growing economic inequality.
It will be recalled that Evatt’s focus on economic inequality arose from discussion at the 2013 AGM. The original idea was to draw some boundaries around what we anticipated would be the direction of the then freshly elected Abbott LNP government. In this, Evatt anticipated rising international concern over the issue, and we soon found ourselves in company with major world figures such as President Obama and Pope Francis, among many others, including surprising allies such as the International Monetary Fund and the OECD. For ease of reference, I've attached a potted history of the rising interest in—and some of the more manifest effects of—increasing economic inequality in Australia and the world since Evatt's 2013 AGM.
As everybody knows, the groundswell of concern gathered strength from and came to be embodied by the publication of the English language edition of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century in March 2014. As a simple index of the rising consciousness, it’s hard to go past the fact that this 700-page book of economics on the subject became an international bestseller. In a market that can only usually be relied upon to sell 300 to 500 copies, to date over 2.5 million copies of Capital in the Twenty-First Century have been sold worldwide. Given that the work is yet to go into paperback, the leading contemporary publication on economic inequality seems destined to become the biggest selling economics book in history.
In the wake of our 2013 AGM, and following an executive planning meeting in February 2014, Evatt took a lead in analysing and promoting Piketty’s work in Australia. Here, however, it should be remembered that concern over inequality was distinctly mute by comparison with the United States, Britain, Europe, the rest of the rich world, and many other places around the globe. Unlike in the US, Britain and France, Piketty’s book has never appeared on Australia's bestseller lists. Rather, the key event that sparked concern in the national context was the Abbott government’s first budget in May 2014, the Hockey Budget, which is generally regarded as the most unfair budget to have been brought down in living memory.
Throughout 2014, Evatt aimed to join the international concern over inequality exemplified by Piketty’s work with the national concern ignited by the Hockey Budget. During 2014, Evatt published over 60 articles on inequality on its website, and a significant number of articles elsewhere, including a major review article on Capital in the Twenty-First Century in the Journal of Australian Political Economy. We continued to publish work on inequality in 2015, although we turned our efforts more to making presentations on the issue. Evatt staged a Fringe event at the ALP’s National Conference in Melbourne in July 2015 on ‘Capital in the 21st Century’ that attracted standing-room-only attendance. Well attended presentations were also made at Politics in the Pub and the Balmain Institute.
I can now report that the thrust continued over the past year. In 2016, we published a good deal more work on the Evatt website, including eight issues of the Evatt Journal, the largest annual number since 2009 (when Evatt campaigned on the introduction of an Australian bill or charter of rights). We made a further presentation on inequality at the Sydney Town Hall as part of the Fringe program of the NSW ALP’s conference. Most importantly, Evatt published cutting edge research on wealth inequality in Australia in The Wealth of the Nation in June, and took a lead in promoting the Australian visit by Thomas Piketty in October.
Over 400 copies of The Wealth of the Nation have been distributed, either as complimentary copies to Evatt's members and friends or sold to the public. In conjunction with the report, we published a column on the research at The Conversation, which attracted about 50,000 page-views, hundreds of comments, and much discussion on social media. The column was republished in many other places, including ABC News Online and ABC-TV’s Q&A website, making it one of The Conversation’s most popular columns among the site's Australian readers. The report's authors published further columns at The Conversation in conjunction with Piketty’s visit, which led to an invitation from Channel 7 for an Evatt representative to participate in a discussion on inheritance tax on the Weekend Sunrise program, generating considerable public discussion in turn.
It is of course difficult to draw a straight line between Evatt’s activity and social outcomes. At the least, we can feel some satisfaction in being in the lead during the remarkable rise in the public consciousness of growing inequality. In this, Evatt has contributed however modestly to what could be well argued was the underlying issue that brought down Tony Abbott’s prime ministership, the uproar over the Hockey Budget. A compelling case could also be made that the increasing awareness of growing inequality was the issue that enabled the Federal Labor Party to go within a few votes of winning office after only one term in opposition.
In all this, Evatt has been pursuing the reason for its existence. Broadly conceived, the aim of redressing inequality is the purpose of the labour movement, which Evatt aims to augment. As a concluding measure of how far we have come, back in March 2014, at the first event we organised on the issue, the address of our invited speaker, Barry Jones, was titled ‘Liberty, fraternity and – what was the other word?’ Less than three years later, the point of Barry's question no longer exists.
2015 Annual Evatt lecture and dinner
The 2015 Annual Evatt lecture and dinner hosted by the Foundation in association with the Katoomba Branch of the ALP was a successful event, as always. The evening featured a marvelous address by Dr Jim Stanford on ‘Building a new common sense: foundations for changing the discourse’. Our thanks are owed to Senator Doug Cameron as the master of ceremonies for the evening, and to Sarah Shrubb, who is the lynchpin of this event.
Art for the People: Mary Alice Evatt
Agreement in principle has been reacched with Sydney University Press to co-publish a book on the life and art of Doc Evatt’s wife, Mary Alice. The book is being written by Dr Melissa Boyd from the School of Arts, English and Media at the University of Wollongong, and will feature outstanding photographic images. The work is expected to be substantially completed in 2017, for release in conjunction with a major exhibition on Mary Alice Evatt at the Blue Mountains Gallery in May-June 2018. This will be Evatt's third publication with Sydney University Press, following the successful experiences of Moving in the Open Daylight: Doc Evatt, an Australian at the United Nations by Ashley Hogan (2008) and The Tolpuddle Martyrs: Injustice within the Law by Herbert Vere Evatt (2009). The executive expects to finalise the details with Sydney University Press early in 2017.
I thank all members of the executive committee for their efforts and support over the past year. With respect to the inequality project, Evatt is indeed fortunate in having one of the foremost authorities in the field in Professor Frank Stilwell as a Vice President. I also thank our other Vice President, Peter Primrose, our Secretary, Eamon Waterford, the Assistant Secretary, Alison Rahill, and the Treasurer, Matthew McGirr. My special thanks go to our former president and my good friend, Bruce Childs, for too many things to mention, but which include his wise counsel and excellent company.
Looking to the future, I would suggest that inequality remains a major field which the Foundation can usefully continue to plough, and perhaps it's now timely to move toward defining and promoting specific policies. The disturbing election of Donald Trump in the United States reminds us that reactionary responses to growing inequality are also to be anticipated, and would seem to imply good arguments for bringing more focus to international human rights and trade, and the direction of Australia’s foreign policy. No doubt there are many other issues and potential priorities, and I will therefore conclude in the traditional way by inviting ideas and suggestions on Evatt's direction and emphasis. Christopher Sheil President 29 November 2016
Economic inequality: Potted timeline of an issue
18 September: LNP led by Tony Abbott elected to office.
26 November 2013: Evatt AGM resolves to make inequality its major theme.
4 December: US President Obama calls inequality ‘the defining issue of our time’.
7 February: Evatt executive planning day focuses on inequality.
17 February: Landmark IMF paper questions economic growth/inequality trade-off.
15 March: Evatt dinner with Barry Jones on ‘Liberty, fraternity and what’s that other word?’
28 March: English publication of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century.
22 April: Capital in the 21st Century becomes no.1 bestseller at Amazon and the New York Times.
28 April: Pope Francis tweets ‘inequality is the root of social evil’.
2 May: First Evatt presentation of Piketty’s thesis at Edgecliff.
13 May: Inequity of Hockey Budget explodes discontent in Australia.
21 May: OECD publishes In it together report, finding that growing inequality inhibits economic growth.
27 May: IMF CEO Christine Lagarde makes landmark ‘inclusive growth’ speech.
11 June: John Hewson launches the Australia Institute’s inequality report, calling for ‘inequality impact statements’ in cabinet minutes.
June: Australian Fabian Society launches ‘Equality’ newsletter.
8 July: Joseph Stiglitz undertakes an Australian speaking tour on inequality.
25 February: Evatt presentation on inequality at Politics in the Pub.
21 April: ALP’s Chifley Research Centre announces an inclusive prosperity commission.
11 May: Anthony Atkinson publishes Inequality: What can be done?
25 July: Evatt forum at ALP national conference on Capital in the 21st Century (standing-room only).
30 July: Evatt presentation on the super-rich at Balmain Institute.
15 September: Abbott replaced by Turnbull as PM, Hockey exiled overseas.
Jan-Dec. 2015: Evatt publishes more inequality articles, including the ‘Legends of Egalitarianism’ series.
17 January: Oxfam finds that the world’s richest 1% own more than the other 99%.
13 February: Bill Shorten promises capital gains and negative gearing housing reforms.
14 February: Evatt forum on 'Capital & Inequality' at NSW ALP conference.
3 April: ICIJ reveals the Panama Papers.
27 June: Evatt releases new report on The Wealth of the Nation.
2 July: Federal election leaves LNP government crippled when ALP wins 49.6% of vote.
27 July: Running on US inequality, Bernie Sanders wins 46% of delegates at the DNC.
9 August: Evatt column on wealth inequality at The Conversation receives huge response.
22 August: Chifley Centre publishes income inequality report.
7 October: Evatt publishes print version of The Wealth of the Nation.
23 October: Piketty presents an address at the Sydney Opera House.
Evatt Executive Committee 2016 (l to r): Matt Pulford, Andrew Mack, Eamon Waterford (Secretary), Michael Vaughan, Matt McGirr (Treasurer), Alison Rahill (Assistant Secretary, sitting), Frank Stilwell (Vice President), Jeannette McHugh (sitting), Bruce Childs, Christopher Sheil (President), John Graham (Vice President). Absent: Fay Gervasoni, Erin Watt, Sally Talbot, Danielle Celermajor. The Executive thanked the outgoing Vice President, Peter Primrose, who was unable to stand for re-election because of his mounting political responsibilities, and welcomed the election of the new Vice President, John Graham.