Clearing homeless camps compounds the violation of human rights and entrenches the problem


Cristy Clark, Southern Cross University

On Wednesday evening, the New South Wales state government passed legislation empowering police to dismantle the Martin Place homeless camp in the heart of Sydney’s CBD. This follows similar actions in Victoria, where police cleared a homeless camp outside Flinders Street Station. Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle proposed a bylaw to ban rough sleeping in the city.

In March, the UN special rapporteur on the right to housing, Leilani Farha, censured the City of Melbourne’s actions, stating that:

… the criminalisation of homelessness is deeply concerning and violates international human rights law.

As the special rapporteur highlighted, homelessness is already “a gross violation of the right to adequate housing”. To further discriminate against people rendered homeless by systemic injustice is prohibited under international human rights law.


Further reading: Ban on sleeping rough does nothing to fix the problems of homelessness


Real problem is lack of affordable housing

In contrast to her Melbourne counterpart, Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore had been adopting a more human-rights-based approach to resolving the challenges presented by the Martin Place camp.

After negotiating with camp organisers, Moore made it clear her council would not disperse the camp until permanent housing was found for all of the residents. As she pointed out:

You can’t solve homelessness without housing — what we urgently need is more affordable housing and we urgently need the New South Wales government to step up and do their bit.

It’s no secret that housing affordability in both Sydney and Melbourne has reached crisis point. And homelessness is an inevitable consequence of this. But we have seen little real action from government to resolve these issues.

The NSW government has been offering people temporary crisis accommodation or accommodation on the outskirts of the city. This leaves them isolated from community and without access to services.

In contrast, these inner-city camps don’t just provide shelter, food, safety and community; they also send a powerful political message to government that it must act to resolve the housing affordability crisis.

Having established well-defined rules of conduct, a pool of shared resources and access to free shelter and food, the Martin Place camp can be seen as part of the commons movement.

This movement seeks to create alternative models of social organisation to challenge the prevailing market-centric approaches imposed by neoliberalism and to reclaim the Right to the City.


Further reading: Suburbanising the centre: the government’s anti-urban agenda for Sydney


We should be uncomfortable

It is not surprising that right-wing pundits have described these camps as “eyesores” or that they make NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian “completely uncomfortable”. The breach of human rights these camps represent, and the challenge they pose to the current system, should make people uncomfortable.

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Unlike most comparable nations, Australia has very limited legal protections for human rights. In this context, actions like the Martin Place and Flinders Street camps are one of the few options available to victims of systemic injustice to exercise their democratic right to hold government to account.

In seeking to sweep this issue under the carpet, both the City of Melbourne and the NSW government are not only further breaching the right to adequate housing, they are also trying to silence political protest.

It is clear from Moore’s demands, and the NSW government’s own actions, that the Martin Place camp is working to create pressure for action. What will motivate the government to resolve this crisis once the camps have been dispersed?

As Nelson Mandela argued in 1991 at the ANC’s Bill of Rights Conference:

A simple vote, without food, shelter and health care, is to use first-generation rights as a smokescreen to obscure the deep underlying forces which dehumanise people. It is to create an appearance of equality and justice, while by implication socioeconomic inequality is entrenched.

We do not want freedom without bread, nor do we want bread without freedom. We must provide for all the fundamental rights and freedoms associated with a democratic society.

Mandela’s words were hugely relevant to apartheid South Africa, where a ruling elite had established a deeply racist and unjust system that linked political disenfranchisement and material deprivation. But they also resonate today in Australia where inequality is on the rise – driven in large part by disparities in property ownership.

The ConversationHomelessness is a deeply dehumanising force that strips people of access to fundamental rights. The policies that are creating this crisis must be seen as unacceptable breaches of human rights. We need to start asking whether our current economic system is compatible with a truly democratic society.

Cristy Clark, Lecturer in Law, Southern Cross University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Income inequality exists in Australia, but the true picture may not be as bad as you thought



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Wealth inequality remains a problem in Australia, but it is lower now than in the years leading up to the GFC.
Flickr/Sacha Fernandez, CC BY-NC-SA

Roger Wilkins, University of Melbourne

We hear a lot about inequality in Australia but the true picture is much more complicated than the headlines usually suggest.

The data indicate that wealth inequality has grown but is lower now than before the global financial crisis (GFC). And while the personal incomes of the very rich have gone up, overall household income inequality has barely shifted since the start of this century.

Economic inequality refers to the extent to which material well-being differs across people – how rich are the rich, how poor are the poor. But there are different ways to be rich, and different ways to be poor.

Income inequality is about the gap between people with high incomes and low incomes. Wealth inequality, on the other hand, looks at the gap between people with high net worth (for example, a lot of houses, stocks or other assets) and people with low net worth (few or no assets). People could have very similar incomes but be at opposite ends of the scale when it comes to their wealth, for example.

In practice, attention typically focuses on income inequality, although it is also important to consider wealth inequality.

Since 2000-01, there have been three key data sources for examining income inequality in Australia: the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) Household Income and Wealth surveys, the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey that the Melbourne Institute has been running since 2001, and the Australian Taxation Office’s tax records data.

The first two can also be used to examine wealth inequality.

For various reasons, the three data sets do not tell exactly the same story about income inequality trends since the beginning of this century. Nonetheless, there are some key conclusions we can draw.

1. The top 1% got richer, faster – but overall household income inequality has barely changed

The first conclusion is that the personal incomes of the very rich have grown somewhat more strongly than the personal incomes of the rest of the population.

For example, data compiled by the World Wealth and Income Database (WID World) show that the share of income going to the top 1% rose from 7.5% in 2000-01 to 9% in 2013-14.


WID World

Despite this increase in inequality of personal incomes at the top, measures of overall inequality of household incomes (as opposed to personal incomes) show relatively little net change this century.

One way to track this is to look at the Gini co-efficient, a commonly used measure of inequality that ranges from zero to one. Zero means total equality, with everyone on the same income. A Gini coefficient of one means complete inequality, the equivalent of one person having all the income.

HILDA survey data show that Australia’s Gini coefficient was 0.303 in 2000-01 and 0.296 in 2014-15. In other words, it has barely shifted.

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The ABS income survey shows a small increase from 0.311 in 2000-01 to 0.333 in 2013-14, but this increase can be attributed to changes made by the ABS between 2003-04 and 2007-08 to the definition and measurement of income:

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Being a longitudinal study, the HILDA Survey also allows us to consider inequality in incomes measured over longer intervals than one year. Incomes can fluctuate from year to year, and so we may get an exaggerated picture of income inequality if we examine only annual income. Some people who appear poor in one year may in fact have high incomes in other years and so, overall, are not really poor.

The HILDA Survey indeed shows that inequality of income measured over five years is lower than inequality of annual income. However, of some concern is that measures of inequality of five-year income have been trending upwards since the early 2000s — although the increase is very slight.

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2. Wage inequality has increased

While that’s been happening, however, the labour market has become more unequal.

Wage inequality is typically thought of in terms of inequality in earnings per hour worked, while labour market inequality more broadly could be thought of as inequality in total (annual) earnings across all persons in the labour force.

Wage inequality has steadily risen and, moreover, the share of employment that is part-time has risen. Research published last year showed that the higher your pay relative to others, the more likely you are to get a better pay rise.

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On the surface, it is remarkable that the large rise in labour market inequality has not — at least, not yet — translated to large increases in income inequality.

The reasons for this are complex, but an important contributor has been the relative concentration of employment growth in low-income households.

Another potential reason why increased wage inequality has not translated to increases in income inequality is our system of progressive income taxes and transfers. However, this seems largely to not be the case in the 2000s in Australia, since the tax and transfer system actually became less redistributive (was doing less to reduce income inequality) over this period.

So while the tax and transfer system has probably moderated the effects of increased wage inequality on income inequality, it has not completely neutralised it.

3. Wealth inequality grew – but is lower now than in the years leading up to the GFC

In terms of wealth, both the ABS income surveys and the HILDA Survey indicate that wealth inequality grew strongly in the years leading up to the global financial crisis (GFC).

The HILDA Survey, which has collected detailed wealth data every four years since 2002, shows that the wealth required to be in the top 1% of the wealth distribution increased by 140% in real terms between 2002 and 2006. This was a period in which both house prices and the share market were rising strongly.

However, wealth inequality appears to have moderated slightly since the GFC, with the wealth required to be in the top 1% actually 9% lower in 2014 than in 2006. This appears to primarily derive from weaker share market performance. The ASX200, for example, was approximately 20% below its October 2007 peak in late 2014 (and even now is still over 10% below the peak).

Perception and reality

In light of the minimal changes in overall income inequality this century, and the evidence that wealth inequality is lower now than in the years leading up to the GFC, it is perhaps surprising that public perceptions appear to be that inequality is growing strongly.

Income inequality has grown in the US more sharply than it has in Australia.
World Wealth and Income Database WID World

Perhaps also important is that household income growth in Australia has slowed since 2008-09, and indeed has essentially stalled since 2011-12. In part, this reflects slowing wage growth, but also important has been relatively weak growth in employment, and in particular full-time employment.

For example, the forthcoming HILDA Survey Statistical Report will show that, at December 2015 prices, the median “equivalised” household income – that is, household income adjusted for household size – was A$46,031 in 2011-12 and was still only A$46,007 in 2014-15.

The ConversationThis stagnation in average living standards is arguably likely to lead to greater focus on the fairness of the income distribution.

Roger Wilkins, Professorial Research Fellow and Deputy Director (Research), HILDA Survey, Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.