The notion of Australia as an egalitarian society is outdated and the burgeoning class system of this country is becoming etched in its urban landscape. By Elizabeth Farrelly.

Mapping urban inequality

A brutalist building under a blue sky.
The Sirius building in The Rocks, Sydney.
Credit: Stephen Dwyer / Alamy

You plant two rows of 50 seedling trees – lining, say, an avenue. All get the same treatment but, of course, soil, bugs and genetics vary and, a year on, some are twice the height of others. The tall ones burst with confidence, leafing earlier and more strongly, budding with gusto. Yet some have barely grown. A problem confronts you. There’s a drought on. Water is scarce. Do you nurture those most likely to survive, sacrificing the others? Do you treat all equally? Or, knowing the strong will survive regardless, do you even out the imbalances of nature and water the weak?

This is the core question of politics. It governs the relationship between the one and the many, shaping our approach to the education, healthcare and city-making that both create and reify our culture. Cities in particular tattoo our answer to this question permanently on the face of the Earth. A dilemma so significant surely warrants a name – the Equality Problem, perhaps. The Justice Conundrum. Yet it is barely discussed.

Sure, we argue endlessly about fairness. In many ways that’s all we argue about. The standard right-left split has conservative politics assiduously watering the tallest trees, trusting in a trickle-down for the rest, while the left wants to focus on the weak, hoping to even the score. Each side works from a sense of rights and entitlement – but that’s only half of the Equality Problem. The other half, seen from the other end of the telescope, is about culture building.

Consider education. The furore over public funding to private schools obsesses over rights: whether it is fair (which it clearly isn’t) for kids already advantaged by background, social connection and wealth to be further privileged at public expense by vast grounds, palatial facilities and extra teaching resources.

But this hinges on the reductivist presumption that education is mainly utilitarian and vocational. What it doesn’t address is culture building. What kind of culture do we want? What sorts of citizens? Does equality have cultural benefits? What are the long-term cultural consequences of its absence?

Australians are still blasé about equality. Even now, with intergenerational homelessness and child poverty staring us in the face, we consider ourselves the very model of egalitarianism. I’d like a dollar for every time some (white, well-off) Australian has told me “the beach is very Australian, it’s the great leveller” or “I was thrilled to get home to Oz where anyone can speak to anyone”. Never mind that a sizeable proportion of Sydneysiders live at least an hour from the beach and couldn’t afford the parking. Or that no ordinary person has a fraction of the access, even to democratic government, that a billionaire commands.

Australian equality is a thing of the past. Since the 1970s, when Australia was pretty much level with the United Kingdom and Scandinavia, income inequality has skyrocketed. In April 2023, The Australian Financial Review reported that inequality “linked to the key factors of age, education, employment status, gender, disability, geographic location and place of birth” was at its highest since 1950.

The same month, a report by Australia Institute economists David Richardson and Matt Grudnoff, titled “Inequality on Steroids: The Distribution of Economic Growth in Australia”, examined the beneficiaries of Australia’s economic growth. Between 1950 and 1960, it found, 96 per cent of our economic growth went to the bottom 90 per cent of Australian income earners. Between 1991 and 2008, that figure was still 64 per cent. Between 2009 and 2019, however, it plummeted to a mere 7 per cent. In other words, 93 per cent of the wealth increase over that decade went to the top 10 per cent of the population. The following month a green paper from the Actuaries Institute found that “inequality [in Australia] is significantly higher now than in the 1980s”.  

All this represents a huge shift – and since the pandemic, it’s got worse. The Australian Council of Social Service reported in 2022 that “the richest 10% of households has an average of $6.1 million and almost half of all wealth (46%), while the lower 60% (with an average of $376,000) has just 17% of all wealth.”  In 2022, the wealth owned by Australia’s 131 billionaires, at 0.0005 per cent of the population, was close to that of the lowest 30 per cent of households. And that’s to say nothing of the plight of Indigenous Australians who, burdened by generations of historically state-sanctioned inequality, are even less equal than others.

This inequality is structured into the dominant neoliberal paradigm. Remember Margaret Thatcher’s famous pie analogy? The former British prime minister insisted a bigger pie, with a bigger slice for everyone, was better than equal slices of a smaller pie. But this takes value as an absolute. In a competitive market – for houses, say, or schooling – value is fluid. Then it’s inequality that is the killer, since the wealthy will always win.

This unfairness should, of course, concern us morally. But we should also worry about the culture it generates. The wider the inequality gap, many studies show, the more intergenerational mobility declines. The change becomes permanent. Bit by bit we produce a class system. This ossification is both mapped and exacerbated by the cities we build.

A hundred, or even 50, years ago we built high-quality public housing in prime inner-city locations. As late as the 1970s we built the famous brutalist Sirius building beside the Harbour Bridge. What a gesture! Melbourne was slower to replace its inner-city slums but the 44 1960s public-housing towers in Carlton, Fitzroy, Richmond and elsewhere have received good press as well as bad.

It’s not impossible to build decent housing to enhance urban diversity. Other cities find ingenious ways – such as Alejandro Aravena’s architectural practice, Elemental, in Santiago, Chile – to build new public housing in expensive inner-city locations. But our planning system is driven by the “highest and best use” (or winner-take-all) school of planning thought, which has seen $3 billion of social housing sold in New South Wales, and, in Victoria, the Labor government has announced its plan to demolish the 44 towers. The result? Inner-city public land is privatised while the poor get flung to far outer suburbia.

We saw this play out during Covid, with low-income families trapped inside cramped high-rise housing, unable to leave, trying to educate their children with often inadequate internet while their wealthier, coast-dwelling confrères cavorted along the beaches.

The pandemic might end but the inequality persists. Out there in exurbia are fewer schools, a shortage of jobs and services, poor transport and a scarcity of tree canopy. All the maps show the same pattern. Low income, extreme urban heat and multiple chronic disease overlay with alarming congruence on air pollution, hotbox housing, minimal green and negligible public transport.

There’s more at stake here than simply whether the inner-city bourgeoisie can find cleaners and nannies. As Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argue in The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better for Everyone, “inequality is socially corrosive”. Their evidence? All the markers of social dysfunction increase with inequality. Anxiety, depression, domestic violence, drug abuse, imprisonment rates, morbidity and general societal mistrust all rise proportionally. In the most unequal societies (such as Australia, New Zealand and the UK) rates of mental illness are five times higher, they found, than in the least unequal, such as Japan and Scandinavia.

This isn’t the politics of envy. It’s not communism or even socialism. It’s a recognition that we’re happier when we’re connected and contributory. Hierarchy is instinctive but civilisation exists to soften that instinct.

So to the tree question. Focusing our water on the vigorous individuals is a form of social Darwinism that gives, at best, half an avenue, ragged and moth-eaten. To value all trees equally, however, requires that we counterbalance the accidents of nature and history by actively nurturing the weak. It also gives us a real shot at creating the glorious overarching avenue of our imagining.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 11, 2023 as "Mapping inequality".

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