25 August 2023

Opinion piece: No child's future should be pre-determined from their birth


Published in the Canberra Times 

A century ago, Banjo Paterson wrote in his poem ‘Boots’:

They called us ‘mad Australians’;
they couldn’t understand
How officers and men could fraternise

Paterson’s poem captures Australia’s fundamentally egalitarian ideals. We prefer the word ‘mate’ to the word ‘sir’. We’re likely to think of ourselves as more country pub than country club.

It doesn’t matter who you talk to across the political spectrum; almost everyone believes in a society where a child’s outcomes aren’t predestined from birth.

How well does Australia live up to that ideal? One way of answering that question is to look at how much parents’ incomes affects the incomes of their children, a measure known as the intergenerational elasticity.

On this metric, Australia is more socially mobile than the United States, but less mobile than Scandinavian countries. We do ok, but we could do better.

One of the ways Australia can improve social mobility is by understanding the drivers of disadvantage, and the pathways out of poverty.

It’s striking to see instances of rapid upwards mobility. For example, research by economist Nathan Deutscher finds that Vietnamese Australians had fathers with an average income rank at the 29th percentile but ended up at the 54th percentile in the space of a generation. That’s a huge jump up the social ladder.

By understanding where mobility is working, we can help expand opportunities to more people.

We know that education is essential to social mobility. As education minister Jason Clare has noted, children from poorer families are less likely to go to pre‑school, less likely to finish high school, and less likely to go to university. A report from the Centre for Social Impact observes that ‘equity in education matters because it improves the quality of life of individuals, supports social mobility, and reduces public costs to society’.

As a government, we’re working to address education inequality, including through reviews into schooling led by Lisa O’Brien and into universities led by Mary O’Kane.

Improving social mobility is also about improving the quality of evaluation. Over the past decade, a litany of experts have called on governments to adopt better evaluation practices. We’re doing that by establishing the Australian Centre for Evaluation within Treasury, which will carry out rigorous evaluations – particularly randomised trials – right across government.

The Australian Centre for Evaluation will partner with government agencies to initiate a small number of evaluations each year. It will work to improve evaluation capabilities, practices and culture across government. Ultimately, this will save taxpayers money by identifying ineffective programs, so we can either improve or end them.

Boosting mobility also requires strong communities. Measures of connectedness show that over recent decades, Australians have become less likely to join, volunteer, donate and participate. In my portfolio responsibility for charities, I’m working with the sector to build a stronger community sector and a more connected society.

We know charities are under pressure and my job is to make their job easier. To do that, we’ve been holding town halls to listen to concerns and we’re working with states and territories to harmonise charitable fundraising laws.

As part of our goal to double philanthropy by 2030, we’ve initiated a once‑in‑a‑generation Productivity Commission review of Australian philanthropy.

We are also collaborating with philanthropic partners through the Investment Dialogue for Australia’s Children— enabling the government to coordinate efforts to tackle intergenerational disadvantage and direct funding where it’s needed most.

And we’ve started work on a blueprint for strengthening the capacity and capability of Australian charities.

Ultimately, social mobility is about whether we want to live in a kind of feudal society, where your life chances are determined at birth. Or whether we want to live in a mobile society, where hard work and education make a difference.

Australia hasn’t always lived up to our egalitarian ideals. The nation of Banjo Paterson didn’t offer much social mobility to women, First Nations people, or immigrants from Asian nations.

But ideals matter, and social mobility is worth striving for. By improving access to education, better evaluating our policies, and building community, we can help fulfil that ‘mad Australian’ vision of a society where anyone can make it.