President’s Report 2014

This year represents 35 years since the Evatt Foundation was established in 1979 with the aim of advancing the ideals of the labour movement. I’m pleased to be able to report that the Foundation was active throughout the year in pursuit of its mission.

Australian foreign policy today

The Deputy Leader of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Development, Tanya Plibersek, presented the annual Evatt Lecture at the Carrington Hotel in Katoomba on 14 April. This was a sell-out event organised in partnership with the ALP’s Katoomba Branch.

Tanya highlighted Labor’s roles in the G20 meeting to manage the global response to the GFC, international relations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for reducing poverty. The MDGs aim to reduce by half the proportion of people living on less than US$1.25 a day by 2015 (relative to 1990). Between 2007 and 2013, Labor almost doubled the aid program to $5.7 billion. Before the election, the LNP announced cuts of $4.5 billion from Australia’s aid program over the next four years, and Prime Minister Abbott subsequently confirmed that a further $12 billion will be cut from Labor’s forward commitments over the three years from 2017–18. The Abbott government has also dismantled Australia’s specialist aid agency, AusAID, and narrowed the outcomes for the program, removing references to poverty reduction and sustainable development in favour of ‘advancing Australia's international strategic, security and economic interests’.

Tanya also detailed the Labor government’s achievements in PNG, Afghanistan, Cambodia and Timor-Leste, and its faith in meeting the big challenges of the world multilaterally, where Australia can play a role and sometimes lead, in the tradition established by Dr Evatt. 

Inequality

To quickly recap Evatt’s recent direction:

  •  In 2011, we focused on the anomaly in that the GFC had exposed but nonetheless left the neo-liberal orthodoxy largely intact and dominant, which led us to invite John Ralston Saul back to Australia to share his insights in a sold-out event at the Sydney Opera House.
  • In 2012, we turned to the issue of national productivity, which was being heavily promoted by conservative voices to spearhead further attacks on Australia’s workforce; a direction that led to Evatt hosting a forum of distinguished speakers on the topic at the Sydney Law School and the publication of a booklet on the issue.

Consistent with the discussion at the 2013 AGM, an executive planning meeting held at the offices of the United Voice on 8 February resolved that we would focus on inequality this year, with a view toward helping to place boundaries around the anticipated direction of the Abbott government.

Fund-raiser

Heralding the new theme, a successful fund-raiser was held on 15 March, featuring Barry Jones, who spoke on the topic of ‘Liberty, fraternity and … what was that other word? How equality fell off the political agenda in Australia’. Generously hosted by Bruce Childs and Yola Lucire at their home in Edgecliff, and featuring live music by Executive members Frank Stilwell and Andrew Mack, Barry painted a rather pessimistic picture of the potential to raise the issue of inequality. He contrasted the attitudes toward inequality embodied by the contemporary and historical Labor parties in both Australia and the UK, and suggested that the ALP may have lost the capacity to take control of major issues and win debates on them, the last success being the campaign against John Howard over ‘Work Choices’ in 2007. 

Piketty & the Budget

Two major developments subsequently reconfigured the context. The first was the publication of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century on 28 March; a sweeping analysis of inequality that has occupied the international best-seller lists for most of the past six months. The second was the Abbott government’s first annual budget, which was brought down on 13 May and is now generally regarded as the most inequitable budget in living memory. The first development has brought an unprecedented international debate over inequality to life; the second has sparked widespread domestic protest and destroyed majority support for the government. In effect, the government has been caught in a pincer movement, and apparently remains largely unaware of its predicament.

Evatt has primarily contributed to the campaign through its website. Seven issues of the Evatt Journal were published in 2014, featuring some 50 articles on inequality, including many original works. In particular, Evatt has taken a lead in promoting awareness of Thomas Piketty’s book, featuring one of the first Australian reviews, analysing the implications in light of Australian scholarship on inequality, and re-publishing many of the leading international perspectives. A small selection of the distinguished authors that we have published on aspects of inequality would include Neale Lawson, Russel Jacoby, Marcus Rediker, Christine Lagarde, Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman and Bill Gates. Australian contributors include Frank Stilwell, John Hirst, Andrew Leigh, Charlie Ward, and Paul Keating.   

Other matters

I should note that the Foundation has continued to support the national debating competition hosted by the United Nations Youth Association. On the other hand, our involvement with the Catalyst think-tank has concluded, with the folding of that organisation into the Australia Institute in October.

I want to thank the Executive committee for its support over the past year, and in particular I thank our Secretary, Anna York, our Treasurer, Sue Tracey, and the former President Bruce Childs and his wife Yola Lucire for hosting the fund-raiser and numerous other generosities. I also want to acknowledge and thank our former Secretary, Chris Gambian, who is retiring from the Executive, about whom more might be said at the dinner following this meeting.

The media environment remains difficult for the Foundation, divided as it is between the heavily concentrated mass outlets and the numerous but highly fragmented forms of social media. In looking forward, it should also be remembered that the Foundation’s activities are inevitably limited by our reliance on the voluntary efforts of the executive and our membership.    

Looking ahead, while it has been extraordinary to watch the rising social concern over inequality, it shouldn’t be concluded that there is nothing more to be done. On the contrary, I don’t think that we have yet succeeded in properly joining Australia to the level of concern over inequality that is currently being expressed in the United States and elsewhere around the world. Despite the optimism about economic growth expressed by some leaders at the recent meeting of the G20, and the boosterism associated with the prospective preferential trade deals with China and India, most critical observers are of the view that world demand will continue to remain significantly below output capacity well into the future, with adverse implications for unemployment and inequality generally. I also think that the Foundation should maintain an active interest in helping to discipline the public debate over productivity.

No doubt there are other issues and priorities, and I will conclude in the traditional way by inviting ideas and suggestions on the Foundation’s future direction and emphasis.

Christopher Sheil
President
Evatt Foundation
19 November 2014

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At the 2014 AGM: 

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