The mega-rich one percenters need to butt out of wage debate

We seem to be bombarded by news of billionaires behaving badly these days.

Workers at the Jeff Bezos-founded Amazon have had a long-standing fight to unionise, despite public reports of ridiculous shifts, low pay, unreasonable targets, and denial of toilet breaks.

Elon Musk appears to have gone to the same school of OH&S as Bezos. According to Forbes magazine, Tesla has the dubious honour of leading all carmakers in workplace safety violations, racking up more infractions and fines in the past three years than all other automakers in the US combined.

He’s now moved on to running amok at Twitter where glitches have given users a taste of what firing IT professionals en masse might mean for a tech company.

Then there’s the Russian oligarchs who siphon off public money while some 17.6 million Russian live in poverty, hiding it around the world in shell companies and tax havens.

The Magnitsky Act, so fiercely championed by leaders in this Parliament, in particular my good friend and colleague the late Senator Kimberly Kitching, seeks to sanction these crooks and freeze their dark money in about 40 signatory countries around the world.

Of course people will point to the philanthropic endeavours of some billionaires and say “but they use their money for good”.

Mark Zuckerberg has made his billions from a website that started out rating women’s looks and worked its way up to deliberately fuelling crazy conspiracy theories and rewarding a polarised political debate. This has ripped at the very fabric of society. But, hey, he has a charity.

The whole idea of living in a democracy is that people vote for a party that represents their values and ideally uses taxes to uphold those values for the benefit of the whole population.

Billionaires doing ostentatious philanthropy may look like good deeds and “noblese oblige” but too often it becomes what journalist Hamilton Nolan called “the privatisation of the social safety net”. Where the few decide who is worthy of help and who is not.

When public services decline — because of a lack of taxes — it’s not the super rich who suffer, it’s the poor who are left to fend for themselves. The 2019 California wildfires are a prime example. We saw the very weird occurrence, to Australians eyes, of wealthy individuals and communities contracting private firefighting services to defend their mansions.

The defund the police movement in the US is a similarly ill-conceived concept. Led by no doubt well-intentioned elements of the left, its real victims, perversely, would have been the poor. The super rich will always be able to afford private police and security forces while the poor would be left at the mercy of predatory criminals.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with striving to be rich. We live in an aspirational capitalist society where most of us have the goal of accruing enough wealth to comfortably look after our loved ones. If we can work harder or smarter and be rewarded for that — great. But billionaires don’t happen every day. No matter how hard you work, you’re about as likely to be struck by lightning as to become a billionaire.

For most Australians their goal is not to colonise Mars. They just want to pay their bills.

The World Inequality report showed that in 2021 the poorest half of the global population barely owns any wealth at all, possessing just 2 per cent of the total. In contrast, the richest 10 per cent of the global population own 76 per cent of all wealth. At the same time, 100 million people were plunged into extreme poverty.

An Australian Council of Social Service report published in July this year found that in 2021, the richest 1 per cent of Australians held 50 times the wealth of the lower 60 per cent of Australians, and 11 times the wealth of the average-income household.

The trickle-down economics they used to peddle so hard doesn’t seem to be working so well.

In May, Labor won a mandate to improve tax transparency by listed corporates, government tenderers and billion-dollar multinationals. Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Financial Services Stephen Jones, and Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury Andrew Leigh, have taken up the baton because Australians expect everyone in our tax system to pay their fair share.

We’ll also establish a new statutory advisory committee to review approaches to boost economic inclusion and tackle disadvantage. It will give consideration to what we can do for those doing it tough and the marginalised.

It’s only right. Money is tight for too many Australians and the Albanese Government is determined to honour its commitment to get wages moving through our industrial relations Bill.

We’re not talking huge wage increases here. Just modest increases that might let people get ahead.

It really gets up my nose when businesses posting big profits, corporations paying no tax, and some of the people who sit opposite me in the House say we can’t afford to increase the wages of the lowest paid Australians while they collect their handsome wage.

Most Australians are not billionaires behaving badly.

For most Australians their goal is not to colonise Mars. They just want to pay their bills.

This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Wednesday 30 November 2022.