President’s Report 2017

I am pleased to report that the Evatt Foundation was active throughout the past year in pursuit of its aim of upholding and advancing the ideals of the labour movement.

Inequality

This year, as over the past four years, Evatt’s main thrust has been toward raising social awareness of increasing economic inequality. This direction was reconfirmed at the executive annual planning meeting in February, and we began 2017 by questioning the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF’s) commitment to reducing inequality in an article at The Conversation, which was republished in numerous places in Australia and overseas. Remarkably, the IMF responded with a press release, leading to a dialogue between the international body and the British authors of the research upon which our article was based, as outlined in the article ‘Engaging with the IMF on inequality’, published by Progress in Political Economy. The intervention also led to a meeting between Evatt and the managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, Ravi Menon.

In part, our criticism was based on the way the IMF overlooked inequality in its 2017 review of the Australian economy. It’s with some grim satisfaction that I can record that in the October 2017 issue of Fiscal Monitor, the director of the IMF’s fiscal affairs recognised Australia as among the countries with the highest growth in inequality over the past 30 years, similar to the U.S., South Africa, India, China, Spain and the UK. This issue of the Fiscal Monitor was, incidentally, titled ‘Tackling Inequality’, further confirming the shift from the era when the IMF was commonly viewed as a major source of the inequality problem to one of the world’s leading advocates for its solutions.

Evatt’s website has continued to be a leading source of news and information about inequality. In 2014, we published more than 60 articles on inequality, we published dozens more in 2015 and 2016, and this year we added another 30 or so articles on the issue. The inequality project has also led to publications and presentations for bodies besides the Evatt Foundation, and to an attempt to break new ground in our 2016 report The Wealth of the Nation: Current on the Distribution of Wealth in Australia. Most recently, in September, Frank Stilwell and I published a rejoinder at ABC News Online to the latest survey released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which had been widely but according to our analysis misleadingly reported to show that inequality has stabilised in this country.

The question the Evatt Foundation might now have to consider is whether we have a further contribution to make on the issue. In the four years over which we have concentrated our efforts, we have not only seen bodies like the IMF become advocates for reducing inequality, but the Australian labour movement at large is now fully awake to the issue. With both the movement’s political and industrial wings explicitly committed to tackling inequality, is there a role for a modest organisation with scare resources like Evatt to operate in the field, next to the big battalions? In other words, is our job done?

2017 Annual Evatt lecture and dinner

The 2017 Annual Evatt lecture and dinner hosted by the Foundation in association with the Katoomba Branch of the ALP featured a challenging and highly stimulating address by the acclaimed journalist, Stan Grant. The event was sold-out and a great success on all counts. Our thanks are owed to Susan Templeman MP for chairing the evening, and to Sarah Shrubb, who continues to be the organising lynchpin of this now longstanding event.

Other highlights

Evatt hosted a lively discussion on ‘Inequality and the end of corporate tax’ as part of the Fringe program of the NSW ALP’s conference in July. Thanks for this event are owed to Evatt Executive member Michael Vaughan, the organiser and a participant in a panel that also featured Vice President John Graham and representatives from the Tax Justice Network and Get Up. Along with our other Vice President, Frank Stilwell, Michael also contributed the research for an article on the Petroleum Resource Rent Tax, with which we led the July issue of the Evatt Journal, ‘The PRRT and the ineptitude test’.

In August we held our first ever ‘members’ drinks’, with a view to welcoming new Evatt members and providing an opportunity for members generally to meet and talk informally about Evatt’s direction and their ideas on what we should be doing, or on what our members would like to do for, on behalf of, or in conjunction with Evatt. I thank our Treasurer, Matt McGirr, in particular for driving this event. The Evatt Foundation has always relied on the support of its members and we would like to work harder and more creatively on building their relationship with the organisation.

Other activity included contributing to the development of training and education materials on the theme that 'the economy should be for everyone'. The Foundation has now formally become a member of the Tax Justice Network. For the record, we published five issues of the Evatt Journal. Among many original articles, I was pleased to be able to publish an interview with Dan Rodgers, Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University, about his history of the last quarter of the 20th century, Age of Fracture.

The future

Looking to the future, 2018 promises to be a big year. The annual Evatt lecture for 2018 is scheduled for Saturday 19 May, concurrent with the staging of the Mary Alice Evatt Exhibition at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre in Katoomba from 12 May to 24 June. We hope to be able to announce the speaker for the dinner shortly, and look forward to meeting in a new venue, the Mountain Heritage Hotel & Spa Retreat. Sadly, after seven years, we have left the Carrington Hotel following advice that it does not pay its staff penalty rates. I should also report that the envisaged launch of a biography of Mary Alice Evatt by Melissa Boyde in conjunction with the lecture and exhibition will not be able to be realised. We remain in discussion with Melissa and Sydney University Press about this and other possible publications concerning Mary Alice, and hope to be able to announce some further news along these lines before long.

The major 2018 event from the perspective of the Evatt Foundation is the 70th anniversary of the adoption and proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948. As everyone associated with the Evatt Foundation will know, Australia was among the leading countries in developing and urging the adoption of the convention, the first time that the organised community of nations has made a declaration of human rights, and Doc Evatt presided over the occasion as the President of the General Assembly, the highest position in international affairs attained by an Australian. To mark the occasion, we have a range of events in the planning stage that we expect to be able to announce early in 2018

In closing, I thank all members of the executive committee for their efforts and support over the past year. In particular, I thank our outgoing Secretary, Erin Watt, who has been called to higher duties in Canberra. Particular thanks also to our Assistant Secretary, Alison Rahill, and to our Treasurer, Matthew McGirr. My special thanks go to our former president, a life member of the Evatt Foundation, and my good friend, Bruce Childs. At the beginning of the year, Bruce and his wife Yola Lucire generously hosted a marvelous dinner on behalf of the Tom Uren Foundation to raise funds for the International Campaign to Abolishing Nuclear Weapons, or ICAN. How wonderful it is to be able to end the year by congratulating ICAN for being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2017 in recognition of its work in drawing attention to the consequences of any use of nuclear weapons, and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition.

Looking to the future, inequality will remain an important issue for the Foundation. Given the frequency with which the Australian government and economic commentators like to boast of 39 years of economic growth, it’s astonishing to think that this country has just reduced the penalty rates and therefore the incomes of many of our poorest workers, and that from 1 July this year, the qualifying age for the aged pension will increase by six months every two years to reach 67 years in 2023. I think there is a need to guard against the propensity of the mainstream media to pejoratively label the campaign against rising inequality as ‘populist’, bracketing the issue with the reactionary appeals to prejudice now so prevalent around the world. In my view, we also have work to do in promoting the concept of distributional national accounts, so that Australians can really start to know what they are talking about when it comes to inequality. Finally, I remind everyone of our upcoming forum in NSW Parliament House on 14 November, titled ‘Inequality in NSW: Living in a two-speed Economy’, organised by Vice President John Graham and featuring our other Vice President Frank Stilwell with Jo Schofield from United Voice.

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

Christopher Sheil

President

AGM, NSW Parliament House

18 October 2017

Suggested citation
Christopher Sheil, 'President’s Report 2017', Evatt Journal, Vol. 16, No. 5, December 2017.<https://evatt.org.au/news/presidents-report-2017.html>