Was Occupy Melbourne Right?

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With the ‘Occupy’ movement spreading across the world, Melbourne also had its own ‘Occupy’ largely following the principles of Occupy Wall Street. In 2011 I raised the question that given the fundamental differences in the economies and cultures of Australia and the United States, was it right for Occupy Melbourne to blindly follow Occupy Wall Street?
I challenged Occupy Melbourne on JJJ radio here, and published the following article.

Was Occupy Melbourne right?

Wealth is a comparative notion and most people compare themselves with people close by, not those overseas. Someone who is in the wealthiest 2% of people on the planet will feel poor if they only look at the top 1%.
Take the Occupy Movement protesters. They love to say they are the 99%. Perhaps some are in the bottom 99% within Australia, but what about on a global scale? 80% of people on the planet do not have regular access to both electricity and water. The majority of people do not complete primary let alone secondary education. Almost no-one completes tertiary education. If one has, they are in the top 1% of people in the world – merely by starting tertiary education. On a global scale, most of the Occupy Movement protesters have the level of wealth and education that puts them in the top 1%!
We fail to look around us and recognise that here, in Australia, we have created a society that, according to outside assessors, is amongst the best, if not the best, form of life in all of human existence.
You do not hear the Occupy Melbourne people saying this.
It is interesting to look at recent data. The old saying of ‘the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer’ is simply not true. In each of the OECD countries since 1980 the rich have been getting richer but the poor have been getting richer as well. Israel is an exception. Their poor have been getting poorer. It is true that the rich have been getting richer faster than the poor have been getting richer.  This wealth disparity is something that needs to be examined and checked.
In Australia the top 10% have become wealthier by 4.5% per year since 1980, and the lower 10% have been getting richer at 3% per annum since 1980. One may be tempted to look at the disparity and not see two other interesting issues.
Firstly, the rate at which Australian lower 10% have been getting wealthier far exceeds the lower 10% in other OECD countries. Three per cent is a very good growth rate. In each of the other OECD countries, the bottom 10% have become richer on average by less than 1%. The lower 10% in Australia have been doing more than three times better than lower 10% of other OECD countries. This is an interesting comparative success.
What is even more interesting is that the top 10% of other OECD countries have increased their wealth at a rate of around about 2% per annum. The lower 10% of Australians have improved their wealth at a rate faster than the wealthiest 10% of OECD countries! Australia’s poor have been getting richer faster than the rich in other OECD countries. This is remarkable.
Whilst we should continue to strive to improve our wealth disparity, surely we should be sitting back and celebrating this remarkable point about Australia: that our poor are getting richer faster than other countries rich are getting richer. But our country finds this so hard to believe that we neither celebrate it, nor analyse it and ask: how do we do even better still?
The Occupy Melbourne protesters mindlessly copied Occupy Wall Street (OWS), without really asking if the same conditions apply in Australia. On their ‘We are the 99%’ page, OWS say:
“We are the 99%. We are getting kicked out of our homes. We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. We are denied quality medical care. We are suffering from environmental pollution. We are working long hours for little pay and no rights, if we’re working at all. We are getting nothing while the other 1% is getting everything. We are the 99%.”
Let’s critically examine each point as it applies to Australia:
1.    We are the 99%. I pointed out earlier that on a global measure, most in Australia are in fact in the global 1%. This arguably does not apply in Australia.
2.    We are getting kicked out of our homes: Australia does not have the foreclosures that apply in the United States. This point does not apply in Australia.
3.    We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. There are a comparatively small number of Australians that are faced with this choice. Few countries in the world have as low rate of poverty as Australia. For those who need assistance, we need to help them more.
4.    We are denied quality medical care. This does not apply in Australia. The system of Medicare still provides universal basic coverage. Medicare can be better, but no one suffers lack of medical to the degree that happens in the United States.
5.    We are suffering from environmental pollution. To a degree yes. We have a good community movement to protest against environmental challenges, and we need to ensure this continues.
6.    We are working long hours for little pay and no rights.  Fair Work Australia, the award system and our comparatively high minimum wage puts Australia ahead of the United States. In the US, Federal adult minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. In Australia it is $10.59 at 18 rising to $15.15 at the age of 20. Many awards have a higher minimum. A 20 year old minimum wage in Australia is more than twice that of the US. Whilst I am not saying Australia is perfect, I am saying that it is far better placed than the US.
7.    …if we’re working at all. Australian unemployment is close to what economists call ‘full employment’. In the US it is approaching 10%
I am not saying Australia is perfect, far from it. I am however saying that Australia is in a far better position than arguably every other nation in the world. Rather than blindly copying protests from overseas, I believe we should lead a discussion fully examining our strengths and weakness and build on these strengths while reducing the weaknesses. Australia does not need to fundamentally change its system, but it does need to fine tune the system. To fine tune the system we need to understand our strengths. 
The Tall Poppy Syndrome stops us from examining our strengths.

More discussion like this is in: 


2 Replies to “Was Occupy Melbourne Right?”

  1. Poverty and disadvantage should be regarded in relation to the community standard, not the world as a whole. Your whole point is academic and not grounded in real people's lived experience.
    Nevertheless I agree with you that Occupy Melbourne was largely Occupy Wall Street me-tooism and their manifesto demonstrated their ignorance more than anything else


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