Launch of the Carmen Lawrence Collection

Curtin Library public lecture 'Why inequality matters' by Dr Carmen Lawrence, 13 November 2008

The text of the lecture appears below.

Why inequality matters

Since we are here today to mark the official handover of the flotsam and jetsam of my life in State politics to the Curtin University of Technology, I thought it might be the right time to answer a question which has often been put to me. Why on earth did you go into politics? While I have often responded that it was in a moment of weakness, the truth is, at least in part, that it was a result of one of my abiding preoccupations - inequality.

Dr Carmen Lawrence holding the Letters Patent appointing her as Premier. Photo taken before the collection launch, 13 November 2008.
Carmen Lawrence at the launch of her collection, 13 November 2008 CUL00034/1.

The drive for equality has always seemed to me the most compelling motivation to be involved in public life; a project based not on the idea that everyone is equally clever or attractive or articulate, but that each person has equal worth and an equal right to develop his or her "distinctive gifts". At its core is the expectation that inequality is inherently destructive and that a civilised objective and a proper role for government is the reduction of inequity, wherever it occurs.

As one of my 60s heroes (I was a child of the times), Robert Kennedy put it;

"We must recognize the full human equality of all our people - before God, before the law, and in the councils of government. We must do this not because it is economically advantageous - although it is; not because the laws of God and man command it - although they do command it; not because people in other lands wish it so. We must do it for the single and fundamental reason that it is the right thing to do."

Obviously, equality has many faces: equality before the law, equality of political power, equality of access to a society's goods and services and equality of income and wealth. All of these are based on the underlying assumption that we are all equally worthy. Taken seriously, this view should translate into actions which cherish human lives, no matter where or how they are lived; no matter what a person's race, gender, sexual preference, capacity or religion - or the repudiation of it. What it requires is a willingness, and an ability, to engage in acts of "empathic imagination" which reinforce our sense of similarity with other human beings.

From this perspective, our political leaders and our education systems should strengthen and cultivate peoples' ability to see themselves, not just as members of some narrowly defined group, but "as human beings bound to all other human beings by ties of recognition and concern." Such an ability, never more needed than today, obviously depends on understanding others' needs and circumstances with some degree of precision. We need, as Nussbaum says, the ability "to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to be an intelligent reader of that person's story, and to understand the emotions and wishes and desires that someone so placed might have."

Kennedy's views, like my own, owed a lot to the teachings of the Catholic Church which incorporate the injunction that we should all be treated as equal before God. Christ's admonition that we have an obligation to our fellow human beings - to love thy neighbour as thyself - and his insistence that we are all equally deserving, no matter who we are or where we come from, remains potent for me. The nuns who taught me were in no doubt that we were obliged as Christians to treat everyone with respect and to do so out of love. I was often reminded of the power of this injunction when I witnessed the passionate advocacy of these same women for the asylum seekers our government saw fit to incarcerate in desert camps.

Christianity, of course, is not unique among religions in giving doctrinal force to the recognition of the equal worth of all human beings; nor are Christians alone in simultaneously embracing the contradictory idea - which some do - that believers are more deserving than unbelievers; that some are saved and others are lost. My own upbringing was blighted by the divisive certainty that only Catholics without sin were eligible for the divine kingdom. I worried a lot about my (few) protestant friends.

Such embrace of a core "identity" whether of religion or race or culture, which effectively defines some people as "outsiders", as "the other" has often been used to justify the more destructive acts of which humans are capable - discrimination, hostility and killing; it effectively circumscribes the definition of "neighbour" to those who share a common set of attributes or values and renders other lives expendable or, at least, less important..

It is a mind set not unknown in Australian history. At various times, the 'other', named or implied, has included Indigenous Australians, the Chinese, Communists, Catholics, 'New Australians', the Vietnamese and Cambodian 'boat people', 'people of Middle Eastern appearance', and Muslims in general. In public debate, 'those people' have been said to lack the virtues which 'mainstream', 'middle' or 'ordinary' Australians possess: we are generous - they are mean (cheating queue jumpers); we are trustworthy - they are devious; we love our children - they would sacrifice and exploit theirs; we are moderate - they are extremists; we are law abiding - they are law breakers; we are peace loving - they are violent, we belong here - they are interlopers and refuse to integrate: 'we grew here, you flew here', as the rioters at Cronulla insisted.

In war and conflict generally, a lot of energy is devoted to the work of demonizing the people to be eliminated or mistreated and trying to avoid thinking of them as fully human. The universalist ethic of giving equal value to all human lives and the understanding that human life is "precarious", are amongst the first casualties in human conflict. We can, as Butler (2004) puts it, be rendered "senseless…before those lives we have eradicated and whose grievability we have indefinitely postponed" (p. xviii). The binary oppositions of religious bigotry and xenophobia are the antithesis of a true commitment to equality.

Certainly, one of the reasons I enrolled to study Psychology at the University of Western Australia as a raw convent girl of 16 was my fascination with the question of how people come to hold such beliefs. I was particularly interested in religious ideas and political attitudes, in prejudice and its converse, open-mindedness. Growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust and the excesses of Stalinism, like many others I wanted to try to understand how human beings could arrive at the point where they could torture and kill one another without apparent regret; judging some human beings, not just as unequal, but as completely undeserving of the label "human".

I was attracted to the ideas of the secular humanists and socialists who arrived at similar conclusions about human worth to those embedded in religious scriptures, but without the theological reasoning and without excluding non-believers. They started from the premise, which I find compelling, that chance, rather than virtue, is one of the great determinants of life. H.G. Wells and his socialist friends began their influential Declaration of Rights with the observation that "since a man comes into the world through no fault of his own"… and they might have added and with no choice over where and in what circumstances…Their attempts to make sense of the second World War led them to agitate for a universal declaration of human rights based on the premise of respect for the dignity and worth of all human beings.

It is no accident that later causes taken up under this philosophy included the extension of education to all children and universal access to health care, women's rights, peace and disarmament, the elimination of arbitrary detention, torture and capital punishment and prison and mental health reform, to name a few.

The Australian Experience

I grew up at a time and in a place which gave me some insight into the fracture lines of inequality which run through Australian society - and reached adulthood at a time when the possibilities for change seemed limitless.

I was a young girl in country Western Australia when the White Australia policy was firmly entrenched and supported by both major political parties; a time when local aboriginal people were unseen on the town fringes; when women's lives were firmly circumscribed; when those with mental illness were still feared and kept under lock and key; a time when the shadow of the feared Japanese invasion in the Second World War and the increasing tempo of the Cold War gave force to the slogan, 'Populate or Perish'.

There was constant speculation, especially by Mr Menzies, about the risk from the 'yellow peril', the millions of Chinese communists poised to overrun the country - at least, unless he was elected. Race and invasion were inextricably linked in people's minds, as they so often are in our country.

I was only dimly aware that there was a massive immigration program underway bringing tens of thousands of 'white' families, some with their passport photographs carrying the inscription, "Labourers for Australia". In my country backwater a few families, refugees from war ravaged Europe, people we called displaced persons, came to make a life in farming and labouring: the Rossis, the Troppianos, the Tasseffs and Mr Zinn. They stood out in the largely Anglo-Celtic community, although I don't remember them being included very often in the local social events. They were seen as outsiders; 'they kept to themselves'.

It was a long time before I appreciated just how difficult the transition to the new world was for so many post war migrants, with no mastery of English and no language classes, with little understanding of the culture and few opportunities to experience the lives other Australians led, with little wealth and no safety net if things went wrong and with no easy, comforting support from family and friends. All this, while having to deal with often barely suppressed impatience and aggression from those whose forebears had also migrated here sometime in the previous one hundred and fifty years. We needed 'those people', the reffos, the wogs, the ones with strange things in their lunchboxes and funny accents, for our safety and progress, to help build Australia, but we didn't welcome them as friends or neighbours.

The land I grew up on was first taken for farming in the early 1900s. Like most kids in the post-war years, I knew nothing about the local aboriginal people who had been displaced or of their culture. It was as if there was a conspiracy to deny their very existence. There were a few families working on farms and for the railways, but they remained almost invisible, except on the football field. They were clearly not encouraged to parade their aboriginality. It appeared to me, as a child, that being aboriginal was a handicap that had to be conquered if these families wanted to be part of the wider, white Australian society. And what else, we thought, could they want?

We were told that our aboriginal families were different, almost like us, not like the ones who lived in grinding poverty on the fringes of neighbouring towns in tine humpies huddled together on government reserves. We didn't know much about these people either, except what we heard the grown-ups say in passing: that they were unreliable workers, prone to disappear without explanation (to go "walkabout"). These observations were accompanied by an air of resigned pity, at best, or angry disgust, at worst. No one apparently thought to ask why the aboriginal people were living as they did or how they had lived before the farmers arrived.

The nuns at school sometimes asked us to raise money for the aboriginal kids at the missions at Beagle Bay or Tardun or Mt Margaret, but we really didn't find out much about these kids either, except that their mortal souls were in danger. We were taught nothing of their history or their culture or the effects on them of our arrival. We were urged to pray for them, as well as giving money, so that they would hear the word of God and become good Catholics worthy of entering the Kingdom of Heaven.

As objects of our charity, they appeared no different from kids in other missions in India or in Africa who were also on our prayer list. I cannot remember ever being told that the aboriginal people had any special claim on us because of what had been done to them by European settlers. Only later did I become aware that many of these children had been removed from their families "for their own good" and were part of the stolen generations.

It was only much later in my life that I began to think about and to understand the monumental wrong that had been done to our Indigenous peoples, to appreciate the seismic shift in their lives wrought by the colonial invasion of their lands. I began to gain some insight into the horrors of dispossession and separation they had endured. And to know that all of this damage was made immeasurably worse by our easily assumed superiority. That we rubbed salt into open wounds by our patronage, by our ignorance, our prejudice and our indifference.

Perhaps it was my childish awareness of the hostility towards
Catholics which reared its head from time to time in my small country community and my realisation of the socially sanctioned limitations on women that gave personal force to my interest in equality. However modest in comparison to other more brutally enforced inequities, I felt enough of the humiliation associated with second class citizenship to begin to ask questions about the sort of society we were. And in whose interests power was exercised.

Like many young women of my generation, I saw a society that was riddled with inequality and discrimination against women. Our mothers were corralled into hearth and home, encouraged to be content with raising children and caring for their husbands, while burying their own desires and talents in suburban conformity.

We saw women constrained by attitudes and expectations which belittled their intellectual capacity and restricted their choices. Women seemed fated to move seamlessly from the role of daughter to wife, from one family to another, barely experiencing true independence between these life stages. Often they were trapped by the view that every marriage should survive and by the fear of social disgrace that divorce represented.

Girls' underachievement was commonplace and they often left school prematurely; women's employment was still seen as problematic, especially if women were married and had children. In fact, for women, paid work was often portrayed as simply incompatible with marriage and motherhood. Images of the "career woman" incorporated the idea that she was in some respects de-sexed, unattractive to men and lacking in "feminine" qualities.

Many faced blatant discrimination when they entered - or tried to enter - the workforce. Very few women reached senior positions in any field of work since they were denied opportunities for promotion. In neither the public nor the private sector, did women receive equal pay and there were no provisions for affordable child care for those mothers who did work.

As I later became aware, women were still unable to fully control their own reproduction. Although the pill had made better fertility control possible, it was still extremely difficult and risky to have a pregnancy terminated, no matter what a woman's circumstances. Sexual assault and violence toward women were taboo subjects and under-reported and women were often portrayed as contributing to their own abuse. There was little in the way of appropriate support or refuge.

As we saw and experienced this inequality, we knew it was not inevitable. We wanted our country to really embrace equality and to give us a chance to live full lives - flourishing lives.

It was impossible to work toward reducing the inequality experienced by Australian women - as I did - without becoming aware of the much more severe oppression suffered by women - and minorities without power - everywhere. Or to ignore the fact that savage inequalities in wealth and opportunity were rendered normal by our unquestioning acceptance of the privileges and power conferred by accidents of birth. Nowhere was - and is - this more obvious than in the treatment of aboriginal people.

By the time I entered University in the 60s, the tenor of public and political discussion was changing. The White Australia policy was under more critical scrutiny. Demands for rights for Aboriginal Australians were firmly on the political agenda as the reverberations from the black civil rights movement were felt around the globe. Racial discrimination and xenophobia were named and judged unfair and undesirable and by the beginning of the next decade the White Australia policy was abandoned altogether - although there were many who remained - still remain - unconvinced that it should be.

The children of the post-war European migrants gradually took their places in universities and the professions, in workplaces other than factories and shops. And the idea of multiculturalism officially replaced the racial exclusiveness that has featured so prominently in our history. Despite widespread apprehension in the community, the Fraser government and the Labor Opposition had cautiously defused the more alarmist reactions to the arrival of Vietnamese 'boat people' in the 70s and seen them settled successfully into our midst. Finally, enough of us seemed willing to accept that Australia was big enough to survive, indeed thrive, on accepting migrants from all corners of the globe.

What was shocking about the Tampa incident and Australia's embrace of the 'Pacific Solution' and the cruel detention regime which followed, was the apparent regression to a mode of thinking and acting which many of us thought was defunct. We seemed to have moved from being on the brink of creating a tolerant, creative society in which xenophobia was on the wane to one in which 'tolerance looks fragile and xenophobia more robust'.

What was saddening about the NT intervention and the discussion about remote Indigenous communities was - is - the failure to apply even the most rudimentary understanding of human behaviour to the question of why there are so many social problems and what should be done to reverse them; the failure to try to imagine how it might feel to be treated as so incompetent that only outsiders could properly diagnose the problems and devise solutions for depressing catalogue of disadvantage. As anyone who has ever worked to reduce socially destructive behaviours will bear witness, reinforcing a sense of powerlessness is precisely the opposite of what is needed to generate sustained change.

What's more at the core of the policy which provided for uniform constraints to be placed on welfare is the racist assumption that "all blackfellas are the same"; Indigenous people in remote communities are stereotypically portrayed as violent, abusive, drunks entirely dependent on welfare. Apart from the sharp insult, what message does it send parents who are providing good care for their children when they are placed on the same quarantining regime as those who abuse and neglect their children? This is the antithesis of making people responsible for their lives; it reduces their ability to take control. And we already know that lack of control over one's life is one of the most significant predictors of ill health and social problems. Some argue that the breakdown in social controls within Indigenous communities has been so complete that nothing short of the surrender of key decisions to others will suffice to engender change, but it is precisely the corrosion of self efficacy - and the knowledge that you are not respected - which is at the root of much of this social collapse.

My prediction is that those elements of the intervention based on coercion will simply reinforce the sense of powerlessness that is already so pervasive amongst the people now subject to the intervention. And this is not the first time they've been subjected to the will of others, with painful consequences; decisions about their lives have been taken from their hands many times before: the appropriation of land, the removal of children, the forced relocation of families and communities, the attacks on language and culture. Special treatment - unequal treatment.
Why Inequality Matters.
I hope these observations illustrate that inequality matters because of the harm it does to individuals and to societies. Some people's lives are stunted and we all end up being diminished. As well as violating the principle of the dignity and worth of all human beings, inequality in whatever form it takes, is destructive, especially because it may increase the precariousness of people's lives and fuel social unrest and violence.

There is also now considerable evidence that various forms of inequality cluster together and reinforce each another; societies which have the greatest differentials in wealth and income are also the most unequal in access to other resources, including power and influence. Such societies are also the most likely to discriminate against minorities and to limit universal access to public goods, such as education and health services. The greater the inequality in wealth, the greater the social distance between citizens. It is typically more difficult for the least well off to move up the ladder and "elites" are more likely to exercise control and to dominate key positions of power.

Inequality undermines social cohesion and weakens the bonds of co-operation. It makes democratic citizenship more difficult because some people are denied the resources - education, money and time, in particular- which are essential to exercise our democratic rights. Recent analysis of citizens' political engagement in 24 wealthy democracies showed that increased income inequality reduced "interest in politics, views of government responsiveness and participation in elections".

Rising inequality also presents a real threat to our collective well being, not just to the well being of those who are missing out. Such inequality, especially in a society accustomed to seeing itself as fair, creates a nagging sense of unfairness and threatens social solidarity and stability. It undermines the perception that we are all equal.

Conversely, equality makes people feel similar to others and more likely to identify with them. The more inequality there is, the greater the awareness of one's position and the more acute the knowledge about whether one is a loser or a winner; while the rich may feel more secure, the poor become less hopeful.

Inequality can lead to bitter divisions and increase the psychological and social distance between the haves and the have nots. As James Galbraith has pointed out it can cause "the comfortable to disavow the needy" and it becomes easier to persuade people that defects of character or culture rather than history cause the gap - you get what you deserve and deserve what you get.

There is also a clear danger that increasing gaps may weaken the willingness of those who have to share by concentrating more and more resources into hands less inclined to be willing. A "winner-takes-all" mentality prevails. This tendency threatens the ability of the society to provide for the weak, the poor and the old and sparks bitter debate about welfare payments and other benefits which go to the most disadvantaged. It will also make solutions to global problems like climate change that much more difficult.

Many have argued that growing inequality is likely to lead to a two tiered society, an "apartheid economy" in which the successful upper income groups live lives which are fundamentally different from those on low and middle incomes. We already live in an apartheid world in which the industrialised world has 20% of the world's population, uses 80% of the resources and produces more than 80% of the planet's waste.

Even Alan Greenspan saw unequal incomes as "a major threat to… security," a pretty miserable reason for addressing the problem. Work on "social exclusion" and "the culture of poverty" illustrates how readily people can be trapped in a cycle of disadvantage and poverty across generations, attracting further scapegoating and marginalisation.

Inequality also results in poorer health. In the recently released WHO report on the social determinants of health , the message is clear: "the relation between socioeconomic level and health is graded"; at each level of decreasing income, health and life expectancy are poorer and this relationship holds for both rich and poor nations. As the authors argue,

Poverty is not only lack of income… health inequity is caused by the unequal distribution of income, goods, and services and of the consequent chance of leading a flourishing life. This unequal distribution is not in any sense a 'natural' phenomenon but is the result of policies that prize the interests of some over those of others - all too often of a rich and powerful minority over the interests of a disempowered majority.

The overall distribution of income is also important. Cross-national and intra-nation studies suggested a relationship, not just between income levels and life expectancy, but also between income distribution and life expectancy: the greater the gap in income between the rich and the poor in a given society, the lower the life expectancy, the greater the incidence of illness and the higher the rates of obesity, teenage birth rates, mental illness, homicide, low trust, low social capital, hostility, and racism. Wilkinson and Picket's latest work shows that poor educational performance among school children, the proportion of the population imprisoned, deaths from drug overdoses and low social mobility can be safely added to this list. Societies with wider income differences also have less social mobility; equal opportunity becomes an increasingly elusive goal.

This evidence strongly suggests that the problems which bedevil our societies - and our planet - and which are constantly in the news - indeed those which bring down governments - are likely to be better addressed by tackling inequality rather than by discrete policies designed to tackle each of these issues separately: policies designed to reduce violent crime or to raise children's educational performance as if there were no links between them. Perhaps the U.S. electorate understood this when they elected Obama with his policy of "spreading the wealth around."


One of my abiding convictions is that the recognition of our equal worth compels us to act to break down inequality, to reduce disadvantage and suffering wherever it occurs, to eschew violence against our fellow human beings and to work to systematically break down limitations on people's achievement and their ability to share in society's goods. With recognition of the equal worth of human beings and the unequal distribution of power and privilege goes the obligation to use one's talents for the common good.

I can do no better than to again quote Robert Kennedy who said, almost 40 years ago, to students at Berkeley,

You can use your privilege and opportunity to seek purely private pleasure and gain. But, history will judge you, and as the years pass you will judge yourself, by the extent to which you have used your gifts to lighten and to enrich the lives of your fellow human beings. In your hands, not with presidents or leaders, is the future of your world and the fulfilment of the best qualities of your own spirit.

Or at least we can try.