President's report 2019

The Evatt Foundation has entered a period of transition that is most obviously marked by the retirement from the executive of our former President and Life Member, Bruce Childs, after an unmatched contribution that stretched over some 21 years. Our Assistant Secretary, Alison Rahill, is also retiring from the executive, as are Michael Vaughan, Matt Pulford and Matt McGirr, all of whom made valuable contributions to the work of the Foundation over several years. The transition is further underlined by my retirement from the chair of the Foundation, which I’ve occupied since 2006, although I hope to continue as an executive member. In what is therefore my final President’s report, I am especially pleased to be able to record 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, and over the past six years, the Evatt Foundation’s main thrust has been toward raising consciousness of growing economic inequality, particularly wealth inequality. Our main research contribution this year was to use new OECD and national accounts data in conjunction with statistics from the ABS to update the series we introduced with our 2016 publication, The wealth of the nation: current data on the distribution of wealth in Australia. The new research showed that, for the first time in more than half a century, it is clear that the richest 10% of Australian households now own more than half the nation’s private wealth, a proportion that has grown significantly since 2012.

This research left us well placed to analyse the subsequent release of new statistics from the ABS, which were widely reported in the media as revealing a further increase in wealth inequality. In a paper titled ‘The continuing redistribution of Australia’s wealth, upwards’, we were able to extend the media analysis and draw attention to the contradiction between the ABS’s results and its official press release. Our critique was republished by John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations website and then in column form by The Conversation, which led to the Guardian publishing documents released under FOI legislation showing that the ABS had deliberately sought to downplay the growth of inequality. In turn, this opened the way for The Conversation to publish a column based on our earlier critique of the Productivity Commission for downplaying inequality, which triggered separate news of the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare doing the same. According to The Conversation’s metrics, our two columns attracted over 30,000 readers and 150 onsite comments and were linked to almost 2000 Facebook pages and over 500 tweets.

There remain unanswered questions about the apparent propensity of government bodies to effectively disguise the growth of inequality in Australia. Nonetheless, this story was widely noted by the nation’s economic journalists and we were not only instrumental in raising awareness but also in intensifying the public scrutiny of the responsible authorities. Evatt members may be interested to know that, behind the scenes, we made direct representations to the Productivity Commission to clarify our criticisms and press suggestions for the future direction of its research. None of these interventions would have been possible without the Foundation’s support for The wealth of the nation in 2016 and the funding of research into the ABS’s inequality microdata in 2017.

Nor would these contributions to research and public debate have been possible without the fortunate presence and co-operation of our Vice President, Frank Stilwell. The Evatt Foundation was therefore delighted to join Unions NSW in hosting the launch of Frank’s new book on the topic, The political economy of inequality, in the Sydney Trades Hall. In a well-attended event that was largely organised by Neale Towart of Unions NSW, the launch featured the CEO of Oxfam Australia, Helen Szoke, and our other Vice President, John Graham. John is to be separately congratulated on publishing the 2017 H.V. Evatt NSW Parliament Lecture: Tackling Inequality, and for hosting the second lecture in this series, which featured Andrew Leigh and Elly Howse speaking on intergenerational inequality.

Anniversaries

The Evatt Foundation organised commemorative events for two major anniversaries over the past year, the 70th anniversary of the adoption and proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and our own 40th anniversary.

For the anniversary of the UDHR, we presented a suite of public events to celebrate and critically reflect on human rights. In association with Tashmadada Theatre, we were proud to stage Peta Tait’s play, Eleanor and Mary Alice, for a short season in the Seymour Centre’s Sound Lounge. In association with Sydney Ideas, we presented a landmark lecture on the decline of human rights protection in Australia in the Seymour Centre’s Everest Theatre, featuring Gillian Triggs, who was introduced by Elizabeth Evatt and given a vote of thanks by Tanya Plibersek. Also in association with Sydney Ideas, we hosted a forum on the outlook for human rights in the Law School Foyer at the University of Sydney, featuring Larissa Baldwin, Dulce Munoz, Nas Campanella, Danny Xanadu, and Dinesh Wadiwel. All the events were well-attended, they attracted publicity, they drew heavily on our affiliation with the University of Sydney, and they were endorsed by the ACTU, the United Nations Association, Amnesty International and the Council for Peace and Justice. While many contributed to the success of the events, particular thanks must go to Danielle Celermajer as the chair of Evatt’s organising subcommittee and the convener of the forum.

For Evatt’s anniversary, we hosted a well-attended cocktail party in the Strangers Dining Room at NSW Parliament House, where we proudly featured addresses by the Secretary of the ACTU, Sally McManus, and the Shadow Minister for Education and Training — and good friend of Evatt — Tanya Plibersek. The event was also to honour Bruce Childs upon his retirement from the executive, an aim that was realised in beautiful fashion by a moving tribute from Tanya. While many were also involved in this event, most credit for its success must go to our Secretary, Clara Edwards, the leading organiser.

Other highlights

The 2018 Annual Evatt lecture and dinner hosted by the Foundation in association with the Katoomba Branch of the ALP featured the editor of the Guardian Australia, Lenore Taylor, who discussed the quality of our national political conversation in the wake of the federal election. As in previous years, the lecture sold out well in advance, and our thanks are principally owed to Trish Doyle for chairing the evening and to Sarah Shrubb, the organising lynchpin for this excellent and now longstanding event in our calendar.

Hot on the heels of the Katoomba lecture, Evatt hosted a debate in the Sydney Trades Hall between the two candidates for the leadership of the NSW Labor Party, Jodie McKay and Chris Minns. The debate attracted a full house and considerable publicity, and was largely organised by our Vice President, John Graham.

I should also mention that the Evatt Foundation has continued to support the national debating competition hosted by the United Nations Youth Association, three issues of the Evatt Journal have been published since the last AGM, and we have added the book of the play Eleanor and Mary Alice to our publication list.

The future

Across a fruitful year for the Evatt Foundation fell the shadow of the May 2019 federal election that returned the conservative government against public expectations. The reasons Labor lost will long be debated, but two observations are relevant in light of Evatt’s directions. First, in championing a fairer Australia, Labor appeared to lose sight of the relationship between the growth of inequality and economic growth, effectively boxing itself into presenting the electorate with a choice between equity and prosperity. This cut across the grain of not only Evatt’s thrust, but the supportive post-GFC orthodoxy of international institutions such as the IMF, the OECD and the World Bank, not to mention many of the world’s leading economists. Secondly, the voting patterns appeared more or less consistent with the recent research by Thomas Piketty on politics in the United States, France and the United Kingdom, which has shown that the left’s post-war class-based alignment with lower education/lower income voters has given way. From the early 2000s, the left side of politics in those three countries, and now apparently Australia, has been the preferred party of voters with higher education, a reversal of the historical class-based education cleavage. There is much to ponder, I would argue, in formulating and communicating policies in a politics that now tends to resemble a conflict between not so much classes as rival elites — between the educated ‘Brahmin Left’ and the wealthy ‘Merchant Right’, as Piketty expresses this distinctly 21st century division.

Against such a backdrop, it seems plain that there is much more Evatt not only can but should do in raising consciousness of the growth of inequality, with an emphasis on articulating the relationship between economic distribution and production. Certainly, we will have more than enough research for a follow-up to The wealth of the nation when the next round of OECD figures becomes available. Further research could also be usefully pursued on the development and integration of distributional accounts with the national accounts.  On another customary front, in the wake of the suite of 70th anniversary UDHR events, consideration begs as to what next steps we could take in helping to secure and extend human rights. To raise a fresh idea, I also suggest that there is an apparent need for the labour movement to invest in conceptualising a ‘progressive nationalism’, given our increasingly fractured world wherein reactionary forms of nationalism are ascendant.

Finally, my sincere thanks to the Evatt executive, not only for the support over the past year but throughout my period as President. Likewise, I thank the members who have stayed loyal or joined Evatt over this time. Chairing the Evatt Foundation is an honour, it has its privileges, and it has been a source of much satisfaction and enjoyment. As is traditional, I conclude by inviting ideas and suggestions on Evatt’s future priorities.

Christopher Sheil, President (retiring), Report to the Annual General Meeting of the Evatt Foundation, NSW Parliament House, Macquarie Street, Sydney, 15 October 2019.