On Anti-Poverty Week

Two interesting articles in the papers this morning.

It’s Anti-Poverty Week, and in The Age, Anglican CEO Paul McDonald (also the co-chair of Anti-Poverty Week in Victoria) notes that “the aim is to get all of us talking about disadvantage and how to address it”. He identifies three lenses through which to view the issue through Australian eyes:

* In terms of global inequality, 10 percent of the world’s population control 90 percent of the world’s wealth;

* Our indigenous population still experiences severe disadvantage in social and health indexes including life expectancy, education and housing;

* In our own suburbs and streets, we are confronted (if we can force ourselves to look) at obvious indicators of poverty, with lack of affordable housing and inadequate social services – especially for the mentally ill – resulting in homelessness, and an increasing number of others simply struggling to make ends meet from week to week.

McDonald notes a peculiar bipolarity when it comes to our awareness of poverty. When disasters unfold here and abroad, we’re pretty quick to dip into our pockets. But we don’t give to local charities, presuming the tax system does that work for us. There is a kind of wilful blindness about very real local poverty, and beyond that, a resentment – that if you haven’t made it in the “Lucky Country” then you’re a bludger, when the sad reality is not everyone has the same access to opportunity that enables individuals to make their own luck.

The resentment is palpable among Australia’s richest. We have, it seems, the flintiest upper ruling class of dirty, rotten, stinking, filthy rich on earth. McDonald notes that collectively, Australia’s 35 billionaires donate just 0.2 percent of their wealth to charity. By contrast, billionaires worldwide give up an average of 11 percent.

Dick Smith has been scathing of his rich comrades about this, recently vowing to “name and shame” those who fail to fulfil their philanthropic duties. Sure, Smith isn’t the type to make a donation to anything without calling a press conference first, but he’s got a point: as McDonald points out, wealthy Australians’ income increased by 36 per cent over the past decade, yet they still gave away less than half of 1 per cent.

McDonald doesn’t mention the 99 Percent movement that’s recently spread to other cities around the developed world, including in Australia. He doesn’t have to.

Now let’s head over to the parallel universe occupied by the editors at The Australian.

In an article entitled “Business must engage in battle for hearts and minds” (re-imagining the corporate sphere as a benevolent invading force), Peter Shergold – the chancellor at the University of Western Sydney – takes the Wall Street protesters head-on. In grave tones, he notes that “the agitation seems to be growing”.

On one hand, he doesn’t really believe that the extraordinary inequalities of wealth and power created by decades of neo-liberal economics might actually be regarded as a problem by the protesters. That would apparently amount to an “ideological presentation of their beliefs”. Put in other words, he doubts they have a brain. But, he concedes, “something serious is going on”:

“It was the Harvard Business Review, no less, that earlier this year published an article premised on the prescient view that the “capitalist system is under siege”. The article, by Michael Porter and Mark Kramer on Creating Shared Value, pointed to the fact companies were “widely perceived to be prospering at the expense of the broader community”. The legitimacy of corporate activity and trust in business is falling.” What a surprise.

In Shergold’s world, this crisis of legitimacy is something to be managed, like damage control. “The licence to operate needs to be re-articulated. Business must be able to exhibit its societal value, not to trade off against the social and environmental costs of economic success but as integral to the supply chain by which goods and services are produced. Giving back is no longer sufficient. Charity won’t save capitalism.”

Not that, as we’ve seen, charity has been a hallmark of business in Australia, but let’s leave that aside for now. It’s the cold, unempathetic language that is so striking. To be fair, Shergold does talk (very vaguely) about “corporate sustainability” and even “corporate social responsibility”, but in the end, it’s just another business strategy: “Building reputation through the creation of shared value is a matter of corporate self-interest.” If that doesn’t tug at your heart-strings and reassure you that the business community has your best interests at heart, then I’m not sure what will.

Well, actually, if business really is serious, it might start by taking a good look at executive pay, which I’m guessing accounts for a decent chunk of the 36 percent growth in wealthy Australians’ income over the last decade. They (and their minions on the right) might also look at their continuing attempts to undermine collective labour.

Maybe some of those CEOs could head down to their local soup kitchen for an evening, just to see how the other half live, and dip into their own pockets.

Otherwise, go get ’em, Dick.

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