Politics Analysis

Deteriorating health, housing and education upshot of inequality

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Wealth inequality is exacerbating various crises within Australia including health, housing and education (Screenshot via YouTube)

A broken promise is of no consequence when $254 billion for tax relief could be used for deteriorating health, social, aged and disability services, and for educational revival, writes Dr David Shearman.

THE HEALTH of Australians is deteriorating. Good health is not only what our doctors and nurses can offer us but according to the World Health Organisation, our health also depends on many non-medical factors such as the conditions in which we are born, grow, work, live and age. Health is also affected by economic policies and political systems.

Currently, the health of many Australians, particularly the Indigenous people, is affected by all these factors, the most important today being housing and education and both could be quickly improved by increased funding commencing immediately. Housing is a human right and under international law, to be adequately housed means having secure tenure.

This provides a sense of safety, emotional stability and a better chance of employment. In our rich country, the level of public housing has hardly increased in more than 20 years, during which our population has increased by about 30%.

According to Sustainable Population Australia, we now expect to receive an extra 650,000 migrants this financial year and next, which will drive a 900,000 surge in total population. Much of the increase arises because we have not trained enough applicants for essential tasks and we don’t pay them enough. This is madness considering housing and the many other needs of immigrants.

How can this be? Immigration policy is a shambles and we don’t have a population policy that would consider these needs rationally. In addition, much housing has become a commodity to be traded as an investment with tax advantages for the better off. It is not regarded as a public necessity.

Good education is a prerequisite for health for it offers opportunities to employment, social interaction and a sense of fulfilment. Section 27A of the Human Rights Act 2004 says that ‘Every child has the right to have access to free, school education appropriate to his or her needs’.

Today in this rich country, educational standards are declining, teachers are underpaid and leaving the profession in despair, there is cyber-bullying at schools, disorder in classrooms and many more children becoming mentally ill. The gulf between private and public education widens. Good schooling should offer a foundation for life for many disadvantaged children. Again, we must ask how this could have occurred in our wealthy nation.

The other pillar of education, the universities, are in disarray, severely lacking funding, visionary management and with much reliance on temporary teaching staff. For many students, it is no more than the road to a job.

The recent report of the Australia Institute provides part of the answer to all these woes — inequality. Governments rise and fall on the promise of economic growth. The report indicates that 93% of the benefits of economic growth between 2009 and 2019 went to the top 10% of earners, while the other earners 90% received just 7%. And this disparity increased during a time of relative prosperity.

The nation is now threatened by inflation and financial deficit. More nurses, teachers and aged care workers cannot afford housing on poor remuneration and now beset by inflation, they are quitting their vocation.

But an even greater problem is arising — the collapse of basic health services which are becoming unavailable to many and particularly the poor. Yet more services are needed to help with an increasing range of mental disorders from rapid changes in society, lack of direct positive social interaction in social media, the lack of housing and other health-giving needs mentioned above. All these facts are interrelated.

Add to these woes the increasing harm to health from climate change, heat exhaustion and deaths, floods, fires and homelessness. Epidemics are increasing worldwide caused by expansion of the population into the habitat of wildlife carrying the infections. We are also faced with more diseases from PFAS and plastic particles now ubiquitous in the human body. More funding is needed to cope.

Health service collapse in the West is most marked in Canada, the USA, the UK and Australia. All have failed to fund their health services in times of prosperity. Why? Their governments are besotted by the fruits of neoliberal capitalism.

A recent article in Eureka Street‘It's time we ended politically induced poverty’ – notes that this economic philosophy:

...saw both the systematic dismantling of essential social infrastructure (including social security) and the strategic undermining of the capacity for working people to collectively organise and bargain for decent pay and conditions.


Where has this gotten us? A place where multinational corporations are encouraged to avoid taxes; a place where precarious work has been normalised, effectively rendering the minimum wage and minimum working conditions meaningless for many.

This should lead us to reflect on the launch in 1948 of the UK National Health Service with free health care for all at a time of huge national debt, poverty and devastation from war.

Aneurin Bevan, the visionary health minister, recognised that improved health meant better morale, a vision of a better future and healthier workers. Within five years, elderly ladies stood smiling at their house gates to show with pleasure their new teeth replacing the spaces and rotting teeth. I worked devotedly in that health service and it was a joy to do so.

In the '70s, the UK moved to prosperity and corporatism and the service began its steady decay, heralded today by hundreds of health workers now applying for jobs in Australia where our deteriorating service is still better than theirs.

The greatest threats facing Australia today are climate change and environmental degradation. These are not always apparent to us except when fire, flood or storm renders us homeless. We need urgent and decisive action equivalent to war. We must come together in adversity and this requires equality by taxing the wealthy to improve the health and living standards for all.

Promises are important in politics, but when you look at the state of the nation, the Treasurer has a duty to cancel Stage 3 tax cuts and deploy the $254 billion over 10 years to our health, housing, educational and social services. This must be followed by wide tax reform.

Finally, it is important to recognise that current economic theory and practice is not a science. The economy is like baking a cake, sometimes it rises and sometimes it falls without reason. When it rises and is tasty, it is gobbled by the rich and the poor eat crumbs. As the French Revolution reached its peak, Marie Antoinette, referring to the poor and hungry, is widely regarded to have said dismissively, “Let them eat cake”. The guillotine awaited her.

Politicians, take note.

Dr David Shearman AM is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Adelaide University and the co-founder of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

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