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Thursday, August 09, 2007

Supersizing me where I live - Part 2

I - as I am sure you do, dear Reader - sometimes daydream about living in another period of human history. For Miss Eagle, her daydream is about time travelling to live as an Edwardian. Not a poor Edwardian mind you - probably an upper middle class Edwardian. So many things were happening then. New ideas, a new century and clothes were s-o-o elegant. But my daydream is tempered by the quote from John Rawls: The best measure of a just society is whether you’d be willing to be thrown into it at random.

That, dear Reader, is the crunch - is it not? I certainly would not want to be thrown at random and willy-nilly into Edwardian society. Would you, dear Reader, wish to be thrown random and willy-nilly into the first decade of 21st century Australian society? Before you give an unthinking yes to that question or reply that if you could come back as a miner in the Pilbara, let's pause for thought. Perhaps randomness and willy-nillyness would see you come back as a traditional Aboriginal person in a remote community in the Northern Territory. Or you might come back as a woman of Islamic faith who wears a hajib speaking with a broad Australian westie accent. Or a young man of middle-eastern appearance in Lakemba with a similar accent. Are you still willing to subject yourself to such randomness and willy-nillyness?

If your answer is no then Australian society in the first decade of the 21st century is not living up to the best measure of a just society as defined by John Rawls, the great moral philosopher of the 20th century.

As Australia heads for an election and the possibility of electing John Howard (who is in his sixty-ninth year) as Prime Minister for a fifth term heading for twelve years in office (the President of the USA can only have two terms of four years each), the question we should ask - as we should always ask of our nation - is: is Australia a just and fair society?

And, Miss Eagle has discovered, we give ourselves away on the justice issue in one crucial and historically verifiable way: our height. Now I am not clear where Australians are on the height table in relation to other nations but take a look at this article about the height of Americans vis-a-vis Northern Europeans. It appears that we write our communal and national history in our bodies and we can transcribe that history through our measurements, our personal vital statistics. We can match those vital statistics to historical events, to economic data like GDP and we can see what we are doing and have done to ourselves and to others.

Similar measures are outlined in the WHO Issues New Healthy Life Expectancy Rankings. Japan is top of the list and Australia is No. 2. The USA is not in the top ten. It rates 24th. Miss Eagle wonders if Australia might have topped Japan if mainstream Australia had been as concerned for Aboriginal health and well-being as it is for its own. Certainly, in the USA, efforts are poor at having an inclusive attitude to national health and well-being. Let's take a look:
  1. You die earlier and spend more time disabled if you’re an American rather than a member of most other advanced countries.
  2. Some groups, such as Native Americans, rural African Americans and the inner city poor, have extremely poor health, more characteristic of a poor developing country rather than a rich industrialized one.
  3. The HIV epidemic causes a higher proportion of death and disability to U.S. young and middle-aged than in most other advanced countries. HIV-AIDS cut three months from the healthy life expectancy of male American babies born in 1999, and one month from female lives.
  4. The U.S. is one of the leading countries for cancers relating to tobacco, especially lung cancer. Tobacco use also causes chronic lung disease.
  5. A high coronary heart disease rate, which has dropped in recent years but remains high.
  6. Fairly high levels of violence, especially of homicides, when compared to other industrial countries.
  7. Lack of universal access to medical insurance thus limiting access to health care.
  8. Eight million Americans are without a job.
  9. Forty million Americans are without health insurance.
  10. Thirty-five million Americans live below the poverty line.

So, dear Reader, next time rich, famous, and infamous Americans catch your attention and life looks great over there, please remember these ten points. Next time an American celebrity gives away lots of money and looks good doing it, remember the unfairness of those ten points.

Ask yourself, dear Reader: if you were one of those people in the statistics quoted in these ten points, would you rather have fairness and equity brought to you by public policy voted on by every citizen entitled to vote or would you rather be one of the deserving poor dependent on the selectivity of a rich person?

Now look at the Australian picture:

  1. 1.05 million households have been classified as having "low economic resources" by the Bureau of Statistics. To fall into that category households had to have low levels of both income and wealth.
  2. More than 820,000 children aged under 14 live in the 1.05 million households that have been classified as having "low economic resources"
  3. After adjustment for family size and composition, the disposable income for low economic resources households was $262, less than half that of middle-expenditure households.
  4. One in every eight of people living in "low economic resources" households are saying they gone without meals in the previous 12 months because of a shortage of money.
  5. Almost one-third of the households said they spent more than they earned, suggesting they were either running up debt or drawing on meagre savings to make ends meet.
  6. The number of sole parents who receive a pension is on the decline for the first time since 1997.
  7. The proportion of lone mothers in the labour force - either in work or looking for work - grew from 49 per cent in 1997 to 60 per cent last year

The last two items need to be look at more closely in relation to income, child care costs, who is looking after the kids and in what circumstances?

Our national government has neglected Aboriginal voices for more than a decade. State and Territory Governments records are not good either. And the Australian voter has not given a sufficiently high priority to Aboriginal health and well-being - instead focussing on its own income and tax-cuts - to impress politicians with a demand for urgent attention. There is a lot of goodwill out there towards Aboriginal people and their concerns but mainstream Australia is not prepared to forego its own financial well-being or do without a tax cut to bring others, black or white, into a position of equity. Please read this speech by Lieutenant General John Sanderson and have a big think.

And what evidence do I have that mainstream Australians are prepared to put themselves and their own well-being ahead of other citizens? I give you the saga of the Merseyside Hospital in Devonport, Tasmania. This is a town with a population of just over 20,000 souls which has access to two nearby hospitals within a half hour and an hour's drive yet has demanded that its own hospital be kept open to the tune of at least $45 million in spite of the difficulty of attracting highly skilled staff and maintaining their skills, in spite of the fact that the hospital itself may not be able to operate in a manner in which safety is guaranteed.

A venal Prime Minister desperate to advance his election prospects has met these demands and thus encouraged a queue of similar demands to form.

It is not only our bodies that are getting fatter and taller, our minds are becoming sloppy and unreasonable and more grandiose.

Supersize me, Prime Minister, some citizens are saying - and do it right where I live.