The Politics    Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The problems you don’t see

By Sean Kelly

A cabinet meeting. Source
We tend to accept things we shouldn’t

Politics is often dominated by shouting matches over questions of political process. The last six weeks or so have been precisely like that: choppergate, the Liberal party room vs the Nationals party room, cabinet leaks, and now Dyson Heydon.

Occasionally you get periods which, while not always edifying, and still dominated by shouting, are at least focused on substantive policy: the debate over the Gonski education reforms, the carbon tax saga, changes in pensions vs changes in superannuation.

While all this is going on, other challenges, deeply embedded in our society, go largely ignored: so deeply embedded are they, in fact, that we usually accept them simply as part of the way things are.

Fairfax had a fascinating and disturbing story today about the ghettoisation of schools. It focused on Sydney, but it is hard to believe it is not happening elsewhere too: “Students with a language background other than English made up 52% of all enrolments in Sydney’s public high schools in 2011 while the share in independent schools was just 22%, research by the University of Technology Sydney’s Dr Christina Ho has found.”

Dr Ho specifically raised the issue of North Shore private schools, saying “The fact that there are so few students from language backgrounds other than English raises questions about the ethnic exclusivity of these networks, with ramifications for the composition of Australia’s future political, cultural and economic leaders.” (Full disclosure: I went to one of those schools.)

It’s an important point, especially when you look at the makeup of Australia’s federal political leaders. Labor’s frontbench is marginally more diverse than the Coalition’s, but only marginally. This near-uniformity in turn is important because it’s always crucial to ask how a cabinet with no diversity can effectively govern a diverse community, the experiences of which are likely alien to it.

It’s important when another study out today finds that the percentage of those in our community who experience discrimination has doubled since 2007, to 18%, while those reporting a sense of belonging to a “great extent” has fallen from 77% to 66%. Perhaps most strikingly, as the Australian put it: “Almost three in 10 people who ­answered the survey said they ­experienced discrimination at least once a month.”

There are of course other issues of diversity that are too often simply wallpaper: it’s been remarked before that there are now as many old boys of Riverview, an exclusive Sydney boys’ school, in cabinet as there are women (and there was a time early in the Abbott government when women were outnumbered by these old boys).

Of course, there are many examples of discrimination against women scored deep in the fabric of our society.

To take just one example, there are calls to change our superannuation system to help the large numbers of women left struggling in retirement. But Peter Martin today makes a persuasive case that compulsory superannuation in any form only further entrenches discrimination against women, because of the lower amounts women tend to be paid and the smaller amounts of time they tend to spend in the workforce. It’s a case that will be largely ignored, because superannuation is so much a part of our system now, and because the issue of equal pay is systemic and overwhelming.

Occasionally in public debate you hear the refrain “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” You hear the case made that Australia is doing pretty bloody well, and that we shouldn’t tinker with things too much. That’s a view that’s easy to hold when those making the decisions on behalf of the nation look a lot like you. And if you happen to be sitting at the cabinet table, and looking around that table you see a lot of other people who look like you, then it’s a safe bet that many, many problems that exist in our society are largely invisible to you, unless you’ve worked very hard to look for them.

Those are the embedded problems; the ones that are too often accepted as simply the way things are. But they shouldn’t be.

 

Today’s links

  • The PM says “it is OK to be gay”, but not to be gay and married.
  • Alan Kohler says Hockey’s tax speech was awful. Access Economics director Chris Richardson blames both sides for an absurd situation.
  • The PM suffers a fall in personal approval ratings while the opposition leader improves his position. Shorten attacks Turnbull for his ambitions. Full Newspoll figures here.
  • Terrorism charges against an 18-year-old over an alleged beheading plot have been dropped.
  • Late yesterday Trade Union Royal Commissioner Dyson Heydon announced he was delaying his decision about whether he should stay in his position.Tony Abbott has indicated the Royal Commission will continue with or without Heydon.
  • Another day, another (pretty banal) Q&A controversy.
  • Mark Latham has resigned from another media outlet, this time radio station 2UE.

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.

@mrseankelly

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