Inequality not just about wealth but also about power

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Bill Shorten needs to convince voters he wants to give back power to the people, says Patrick Keane (Image via @billshortenmp)

Inequality is growing because there is an uneven distribution of power.

Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten is the most recent in a line of politicians – Wayne Swan, Andrew Leigh, Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders – addressing the worsening problem of inequality. Bill Shorten said inequality was killing hope. 

In Australia and the United Kingdom, inequality and the instability it produced means minor parties are able to influence the system in previously unimaginable ways. The BREXIT Referendum in 2016, is one example and the Howard Government's abolition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) in 1998 is another.

In 1998, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation won a quarter of the vote at the Queensland State Election and 11 seats. No minor party has made such an impact before or since. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation subsequently imploded, spectacularly, but One Nation had a profound influence on the policy of John Howards Liberal-National Coalition Government. As One Nation imploded, Howard excluded indigenous Australians from public support, which included the abolition of ATISC.

The further consequences of BREXIT are difficult to predict, but the abolition of ATSIC in Australia in 1998 paved the way for more punitive measures like the 2007 Intervention in the Northern Territory. The problem the abolition of ATISC was supposed to solve, the perceived inequality of some kinds of support going to Indigenous Australians but not non-Indigenous Australians, led to worse inequality.

Labor governments have had opportunities to address inequality since the emergence of One Nation in 1998. Peter Beattie, the Premier of Queensland after One Nation’s 1998 election success instituted community cabinets but did not address inequality.

Australia is more unequal now than any time in the last 50 years and it’s getting worse.

There is no indication the long term trajectory of inequality will be addressed and, just as banks earned record profits for the third year in a row, wages did not grow in Australia.

One of the most important checks on inequality in Australia up until now was housing — but housing in Australia is more unaffordable than ever.

Inequality has grown so that one of the world’s wealthiest nation’s Australia is home to some of the world’s poorest communities.

The Leader of the Opposition has said “a sense of powerlessness that drives people away from the political mainstream, and down the low road of blaming minorities, and promising to turn back the clock” was one of the consequences of inequality. But it is not just One Nation supporters that turned from the mainstream. In Australia, the number of voters and registered voters is falling because people and young people in particular believe they are powerless to influence the mainstream. The mainstream is able to ignore young people and marginalised Australians because they are powerless.

If Bill Shorten wants to win the next Federal election he will have to convince these voters he is able and not just enthusiastic at addressing inequality and giving them back power.

Patrick Keane completed an honours thesis on Pauline Hanson's One Nation and the 1998 Queensland State Election in 2010, and was an advisor to a Labor Senator. You can follow Patrick on Twitter @pckeane2014.

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