Tackling inequality

H.V. Evatt NSW Parliamentary Lecture: Introduction
John Graham

This publication marks the very first in an annual lecture series run by the Evatt Foundation at the NSW Parliament.

It was held here in recognition of Doc Evatt’s role as a member of the NSW Legislative Assembly, representing the seat of Balmain. He held that role from the 30th of May 1925 to the 18th of September 1930, first as a Labor, then as an Independent Labor candidate.

The lecture is launched as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the events that tipped Evatt into politics – the great rail strike of 1917. Australia’s biggest strike, Evatt served as the junior counsel representing the workers. He later penned a series of pamphlets pressing their case. The modern reader will still find them burning with the injustice of what happened. That injustice was pivotal in Evatt choosing politics.

This inaugural Evatt lecture will concern itself with inequality. Tackling inequality is an agenda that is well developed in international and national politics. It is almost absent from our discussion of state politics. That has to change.

We should give consideration to the state levers of power that can be used to tackle inequality in NSW.

That is especially the case after the Sydney Morning Herald has just published data showing the gap between the city and the bush in NSW. Over five years as Sydney added 342,000 jobs while the remainder of NSW fell by 17,000. It is a stark reminder of the challenge.

We are pleased to publish these speeches by Jo Schofield and Frank Stilwell. Jo is the National Secretary of a trade union that has focused relentlessly on low paid work and inequality. She formerly ran the Catalyst think tank. With that background she is one of Australia’s most thoughtful campaigners.

In my short time in parliament I have pursued two issues, combating inequality and promoting music. So you will understand I mean it as the highest praise when I simply introduce my fellow Evatt Vice-President Frank Stilwell as a guitar-wielding political economist.

This new lecture is launched in a big week in Australian politics. Tonight we tackle inequality, tomorrow we learn the result of the nation’s marriage equality vote, and on Thursday the state parliament will debate the introduction of euthanasia in NSW.

Inequality, love and death — a big week. What it reminds us is that politics matters, that campaigning matters and that institutions like the Evatt foundation matter.

I hope you enjoy these speeches by two of Australia’s leading thinkers on inequality. We have added to this pamphlet a briefing note from Evatt President Christopher Sheil. It examines how we measure inequality in Australia. This paper will form the basis for an important part of Evatt’s campaign on inequality.

The truth is that Australian policy makers know far less than we should about inequality. We don’t measure wealth inequality, as opposed to income inequality, and regional inequality statistics are rare. For those trying to tackle inequality, it is the policy equivalent of driving with one eye closed. You can see which direction you are heading but have no sense of the depth of the problem.

Ultimately, we should establish Distributional National Accounts, that measure wealth and redistribution, including at state and regional level. Chris reminds us that prior to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, states originally had their own statistical agencies. In return they were given this assurance: that the ABS would collect the statistics that the states reasonably required.

The statistics that NSW needs to tackle wealth and regional inequality do not exist. I believe an incoming NSW Labor government should request the ABS measure those statistics. If they are not forthcoming, we should re-establish a NSW Bureau of Statistics. The urgent task of creating a more equal state, particularly between the city and the bush, demands it.


Hon. John Graham, MLC, is Vice President of the Evatt Foundation. This is the introduction to Graham, John (ed.) (2018), H V Evatt NSW Parliament Lecture: Tackling Inequality, Sydney: Evatt Foundation.