So Much Power Wielded by Select Few in Society Out of Kilter

Poverty in Tasmania is a symptom of a power imbalance, says Kym Goodes is chief executive of the Tasmanian Council of Social Service. (From The Mercury, 18 October 2017)

This week I saw two separate families advertising through social media for somewhere to live in Hobart.

One could pay up to $900 per week and had “other options” so were willing to wait for the right place in the preferred suburb. The second was a single father, desperate to find a house he could afford with his small waged income. With three children, two jobs and limited funds, his desperate plea in a desperate housing market was – “I will take anything”.

There is something very out of balance in our state as the realities of inequality start to become more obvious in the day-to-day life of Tasmania. In the capacity to find a rental property.

In the capacity to find stable, permanent employment. In the ability to afford fresh, healthy food. In the ability to have a voice, to be heard equally.

We all stumble and fall down once in a while. We all experience times when the parts of ourselves that are normally in balance sometimes just aren’t.

This is as true for communities as for individuals – they can also get out of balance.

According to a report by Oxfam International released early this year, just eight men own the same amount of wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity.

These eight billionaires have a combined net worth of $A546 billion.

But – minus the billions – what’s the difference between you and Warren Buffett? Or Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg or Michael Bloomberg? Are they more worthy in real terms? Is mastering the art of making money reason enough to think them deserving?

When it comes down to it, they’ve really only used their individual power in a different way to you and I – they’ve made the system work for them and help them achieve their money-making goals.

When a business decides to look for efficiencies by laying off staff or freezing wages that is a conscious choice that a human being makes.

Wage earners are not getting their dividend from our economic growth. Since 2000, productivity has increased three times faster than wages in Australia.

This hasn’t just happened; people made decisions that impacted on the wages of other people.

We often talk about systems as though they’re something “out there”, removed from us. But our tax system, Centrelink, and the whole economic system itself aren’t independent powers, they’re made up of people – people like political representatives who make decisions every day that shape that system and determine who benefits and how.

To tackle inequality we need to make sure these systems work for every one of us, not just those who use their power to manipulate decisionmaking for their own ends.

Decision-makers are easily persuaded by those individuals in society whom they think have power.

This is especially true in a small state like Tasmania.

For decades governments of all persuasions have made public policy choices on behalf of Tasmanians that benefit the few rather than the many. The vested interest, not the public interest. This is because the few have loudly exercised their power in ways politicians respond to, while the many haven’t.

A good example is the debate we’re in the middle of right now about poker machines, because it’s not really about pokies, it’s actually about power. That we have these machines in our suburbs is a demonstration of what happens when the power of a few is given a greater value than the power of the many.

This is how Federal Hotels and its lobby groups have decisions made in favour of its money-making preferences while polls show consistently that more than 80 per cent of Tasmanians do not want pokies in their local pubs and clubs.

In a democracy, we all have some power – from the very wealthy to the impoverished, we all have one vote and the power to influence who makes decisions on our behalf.

Imagine if more people in our communities understood their own power, and were able to us it to achieve their goals. They could rebuild systems from the inside out so they are designed to look after the wider public interest of our fellow Tasmanians rather than the narrow vested interests.

On poker machines as on so many other matters our political representatives are the decision-makers. They can make decisions that to entrench the imbalances in our state, decisions that exclude and disconnect the majority of Tasmanians and their communities.

Or they can make decisions that empower us, paving the way for to build a richer, more rewarding place for us all.

Poverty and inequality isn’t just about a lack of money, it is also about a lack of power. Poverty is a symptom of a power imbalance in society. Power can be used for humanity and powerful decision making can be shared.

With the state election looming those seeking to represent all Tasmanians need to focus on the many rather than the few – it is time to put our state back in balance.