Is Australia really the land of the ‘fair go’?
Every Monday afternoon at 3:30pm, I rush out of the northern Melbourne high school where I work as a teacher and drive to a public library. It is here that I volunteer at the Brotherhood of St. Lawrence’s ‘homework club’. Held in the rear of the library, homework club is mostly attended by kids who live in the public housing precinct next door. I love Monday afternoons. We few volunteers don’t have to do anything except sit down with these kids in front of their open books and try to engage them in whatever schoolwork they might be struggling with. There is always a big fruit platter for the secondary school kids (and me) to snack on as they try to procrastinate and I try to stop them procrastinating. The mood of the room is always convivial. Cara, the coordinator of the program, is an expert in making sure the students feel welcome and comfortable so that they feel no qualms in asking for help.
These kids at homework club are success stories of our education system. They are largely from very disadvantaged backgrounds and most are new arrivals to Australia, hailing from various distant shores. Despite obstacles, here they are, learning.
One Monday afternoon not long ago, three kids from Afghanistan who had recently settled in Melbourne turned up to homework club. I chatted with Masood, the eldest, a boy, and after a while I gleaned that the family had spent some time in Pakistan on a journey that had ended, at least for the time being, here. Masood began telling me about what it was like to live in Pakistan.
“Very undisciplined,” he said, and I thought he meant at school.
“Oh, the kids shouted at the teacher?” I responded.
“No”, he replied. “People would shoot each other all the time.”
It was immediately apparent that Masood and his two siblings were extremely keen to perfect their English and get stuck into their Australian schooling. They’d just finished language school—a bridging course newly arrived students attend for six to twelve months before starting mainstream school—and were excited to start high school. The possibilities that an education could provide them – especially an Australian education – had them electrified.
Like these three Afghani kids, my experience with students who come to homework club is that they do so because they want to better themselves. They won’t say it outright, but it’s there, beneath every one of their sentences.
On a different Monday afternoon I was helping a bright young Sudanese woman named Sahar with a first year university assignment. Sahar was studying Social Work. She was heavily involved in her local community; she worked part time in the after school care program at the public housing estate, a program that provides younger kids from the estate a safe and secure adventure playground in which they can play and interact.
“I hate it when people at school ask me if I’m a refugee.”
While I was helping Sahar with her assignment she began dropping politically charged statements – although I’m not sure if she intended them to be. Sahar said to me, “I hate it when people at school ask me if I am a refugee.” I know that around the commission flats calling someone a refugee is one of the worst insults, and yet I still asked Sahar why she hated this. She said it was because it made her sound as though she was poor. And although her family did sit at the lower end of the economic spectrum, unlike her five siblings Sahar had attended one of the most elite private schools in Melbourne on a scholarship, where the fees are in excess of twenty thousand dollars per year.
Sahar then began telling me what this private school experience had been like for her. She spoke about the awkwardness of attending this school while all her brothers and sisters went to a nearby state school. Sahar eventually revealed that she wanted to work really hard at her studies, and then in employment, so that she could be like the parents of her private school friends.
“You should see how much money they have,” she said. “My school friends’ parents work really hard. That’s how come they’re so rich.”
I laughed, and we got back to working on her assignment.
A few seconds later, a thought hit me. Sahar believed that hard work alone provides the affluent lifestyle of the rich. This troubled me. And her statement stood out as an example of a much greater societal problem: our inability to recognise the generations of affluence that allow people to live these lifestyles, giving them the power to make the choices that they do.
Language is powerful. If being a ‘refugee’ is an insult, even among those who truly know its meaning, and is thus a sticky subject for many, then try talking about ‘class’ in Australia. As Mel Campbell pointed out in an article for Crikey :
“A 2000 UNSW study found that 92.9% of survey participants believed themselves to be in the middle 60% of households; only 6.4% saw themselves in the bottom 20% and 0.7% identified with the top 20%. When the study was repeated in 2006 and 2010, we had no clearer notion of our relative circumstances.”
We live in a wealthy country with many opportunities.
Australia is (mostly) rich in natural resources, we are (mostly) healthy, and Australians are (mostly) more socially mobile than ever before. The vast majority of people in Australia can access public health facilities, education and housing. We live in a wealthy country with many opportunities. Surely, in Australia of all places, it’s possible to easily rise above the class in which you were born, if you so desire?
Alas, this is functionally not the case. The system we live in is inherently skewed. It’ll be much more difficult for Sahar to reach the economic wealth of her fellow students from her private school. In Australia, we’re constantly told education is the great equaliser. We’re encouraged to believe that if we work hard enough, the things we want will soon be within our reach. But the reality proves something much different. Take Sahar: in her case, it wasn’t elite private schooling that was helping her complete assignments or apply for scholarships or placements – it was being provided by a charity organisation run by volunteers.
Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser posited in his essay ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ that a person’s desires, choices, intentions and judgments are the products of social processes, rather than products of their own autonomy. He argued that society makes the individual in its own image, that a person’s actions are acquired within the structure of established social practice. As such, our subjectivity is limited by our cultural situation.
But within our current capitalist society, the opposite plays out: a person believes that they are an independent agent whose actions can be explained by their thoughts. Althusser says this represents an “imaginary relationship to our real condition of existence”. This means that in reality, the roles people can have are limited by, and given to us, by the society we live in. We do not consciously create an ideology for ourselves. We are born into it, grow up in it, live, think and act within it. The idea that all it takes to achieve great wealth is hard work is a myth we tell ourselves as part of our imaginary relationship to our real condition of existence. It’s an example of how we accept ideology into our lives without critical enquiry.
It isn’t unusual for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to tell themselves they’ll be able to become rich – the idea of class mobility has long been celebrated in Australian culture.
As Tim Winton wrote in The Monthly : “I grew up in a country that codified the dignity of labour, that treasured decency and fairness, where the individual was valued and the collective aspirations of ordinary people were honoured.”
Winton goes on to argue that real equality is decreasing with each successive federal government that fails to provide adequate financial support for education, universities and healthcare.
Would you choose to live in a society that is seemingly more fair for more people?
Althusser says that we have no say over our lives; instead our lives are determined by existing ideology. While this may be true, it does represent a fairly pessimistic way of looking at our world.
American moral philosopher John Rawls presents a helpful and possibly more optimistic thought experiment in A Theory of Justice. He asks what principles of social justice you might choose if you were generally knowledgeable of human affairs, but had no idea of your social status and class, or even your gender, sexual identity or occupation. In other words, if you didn’t know you were a white, wealthy male, would you choose to live in a society that benefits wealthy white males, or one that is seemingly more fair for more people?
Rawls then wonders what might occur if it was possible to remove this “veil of ignorance”. If we could remove particular biases and objectively see the world in which we are living, would we choose values that are equally just for a whole society? It’s a more constructive interpretation than Althusser, allowing an individual to defy their social status and create a world that is fairer for all.
When Sahar and I were talking, it seemed to me that she wasn’t recognising the extent of her current success. Sahar’s journey to complete her VCE and be awarded a place at a university was so much more difficult and complicated than it might have been for many of her school friends. Her family had needed to start a new life in Australia, and Sahar had been required to learn a new language, adapt to a new culture and find her place in a very different city than the one in which she was born.
Although Sahar is studying Social Work (and can see the value in both helping people and living in a community-focussed society) I think the individualism she expressed probably originated from the attitudes of her school. What also needs to be considered is an understanding of the connection between this success and the policies of the Australian Government, policies that currently give higher earners access to tax breaks like negative gearing, capital gains and superannuation tax concessions. All of these, especially the latter (according to the Harmer Review – a recent review of Australia’s future tax system) put low-income workers at a disadvantage.
Another recent study, The Wealth of Generations Report , produced by the Grattan Institute, showed that wealthy Australians are more likely to feel comfortable giving money to their children, whether for education, for housing, for business, or other reasons. As the report suggests, inheritance or large sums of money given to children from wealthier Australians reinforces the tendency for these children to have more and better schooling, for example. “And if inheritances rather than lifetime earnings are the dominant route to wealth, there is less incentive for talented Australians to get ahead through individual endeavour.”
Australia continues to pride itself on being the land of the ‘fair go’, but it’s increasingly moving away from this – as Sharon Friel writes, in Australia the wages of a worker in the bottom 10% of income earners has risen by 15% since 1975, while the wages of people in the top 10% have risen by 59% in the same period. By the same token, in 2009 the top twenty CEOs in Australia earned more than one hundred times the average wage.
[Elite] school’s values are individualistic in nature, and serve to divert students from critically engaging in society.
The goal of becoming successful (which in Australia almost always means wealthy) is further encouraged at elite private schools like the one that Sahar attended. Sure, such schools might pay lip service about being community-minded, but the reality of the school’s values are individualistic in nature, and serve to divert students from critically engaging in society.
Lauren Berlant, a contemporary theorist writing about notions of class and ignorance, recently popularised an idea called ‘cruel optimism’. Like Althusser, she is critical of both the sentimentality we apply to structures in society and of the problems that emerge once the promise of a better life for the socially disadvantaged starts to wear thin. For Berlant, it would be counterproductive for people like Sahar to pretend there are no problems with the current structures of Australia – doing so would be like enforcing a sense of cruel optimism.
A month or so later, I saw Sahar at homework club again. She invited me to her art opening and asked if I could help her do an application to be a United Nations Youth Ambassador. We started by listing all her achievements and picking out the ones that were most relevant. Sahar’s achievements are extraordinary. On one occasion, she even started Zumba classes for girls at her high school. Many of these girls had body issues and were too self-conscious to exercise in front of the boys, and so Sahar single-handedly raised money, organised an instructor and created a space at school for the girls to exercise once a week.
Sahar’s determination to act within the community and create positive change is a sign of her intelligence and generosity. Her story so vividly reflects Australia’s class relations and the complex realities faced by new migrants, and yet to see her youthful energy and hear of her will to create a better environment for her community is a joy. If in Australia we can encourage broader and more honest discussion about class, people like Sahar might be encouraged to form solidarity with others in similar situations. Maybe then more Australians will work together to improve the collective wellbeing of all, and not just their own equity portfolios.
The fact that, for Sahar, money is the most important kind of ‘rich’ is, to me, frustratingly anachronistic. And even more frustrating is that she’ll need to work much harder than most for that money. A ‘fair go’ does not mean – and never has meant – an equal go for all.
Claire Feain is a writer, teaches English and Philosophy, and is head of Learning Difficulties at a secondary school in Melbourne, Australia.
Jacob Zinman-Jeanes is a designer, illustrator and musician currently living Melbourne, Australia.