Equality of opportunity was one of the big themes of Gough Whitlam’s 1969 and 1972 campaigns. His 1972 policy speech promised "a new drive for equality of opportunities" through reforms to education, health and urban planning. He argued that opportunity depends on the kind of investments only government can make. In his 1985 book The Whitlam Government 1972–1975 he drew on Abraham Lincoln for support:
There is, of course, nothing novel in this idea of action by governments to promote community welfare. Before he became President, Abraham Lincoln wrote: "The legitimate object of government is to do for the people what needs to be done but which they cannot, by individual effort do at all, or do so well for themselves" (p 3).
Today we’re more likely to associate this Lincoln quote with Tony Abbott or his government’s Commission of Audit. But Whitlam argued that there were important things people could not achieve on their own. Equality of opportunity was one of them. According to Whitlam, for many Australians the doors to opportunity begin closing in early childhood. In the pre-school years "inequality is rivetted on a child for a lifetime", he said. He argued that "Education should be the great instrument for the promotion of equality" but "Under the Liberals it has become a weapon for perpetuating inequality and promoting privilege." According to Whitlam, only government can make sure every Australian has access to a quality education all the way from pre-school to university.
Whitlam also argued that wellbeing and equality depend on planning and infrastructure in cities. He said that "no amount of wealth redistribution through higher wages or lower taxes can really offset the inequalities imposed by the physical nature of the cities." As Lincoln wrote among the things people cannot do well for themselves are: "public roads and highways, public schools, charities, pauperism, orphanage, estates of the deceased, and the machinery of government itself" (p 180).
Whitlam made it clear he was arguing for equality of opportunity rather than equality of income. During the 1969 campaign he said:
The inequalities in our community now reflect not so much gross disparities in income, but the failure of successive Liberal governments to create opportunities for the overwhelming majority of our people – the lower, modest and middle income families – opportunities which only governments can make.
Today, treasurer Joe Hockey argues that government efforts to reduce inequality of opportunity should be tightly focused on the most vulnerable rather than extended to those on modest and middle incomes. According to Hockey, "just ten per cent of the population pays nearly two thirds of all income tax." He argues that "providing widespread access to the many at a massive cost to the few" is no longer an acceptable policy.
While Whitlam argued that government should help lower, modest and middle income families give their children similar opportunities to those at the top, Hockey sees equality of opportunity as mostly a problem for those at the very bottom. As he said in a recent speech to the Sydney Institute:
In our view it is the responsibility of government to provide equality of opportunity with a fair and comprehensive support system for those who are most vulnerable. After that it is up to individuals in the community to accept personal responsibility for their lives and their destiny.
There’s no suggestion in Hockey’s remarks that there’s anything unfair about some children getting their education at elite private schools where they build social and cultural capital while others make do with a public system wealthy parents seem to regard as unacceptable. For many of those on the right, expecting government to equalise educational opportunity is a kind of envy-driven class warfare designed to prevent children from successful families from reaching their potential. To them it looks like hatred of achievement and excellence.
For Hockey, the problem isn’t just about what government should do, it’s also about what it can do. In his recent speech to the Sydney Institute he said that while governments can try to make sure everyone arrives at the starting line with a similar opportunity to succeed, they "are increasingly compromised in their ability to achieve equality of opportunity." According to Hockey, more taxing and spending may end up slowing the economy, blowing out the deficit and making everyone worse off. The Whitlam government doesn’t have a great reputation on fiscal policy.
Hockey seems less concerned about how government might expand opportunity for lower and middle income families and more concerned about what individuals at the bottom need to do to take advantage of opportunities they already have. For example, he argues that the welfare system "is clearly not encouraging participation and personal responsibility."
Some conservatives argue that we should stop looking to government to solve the problem of inequality of opportunity. For example, instead of expecting government to take more responsibility for disadvantaged children, we should expect more responsibility from parents and communities. Conservatives argue that when government steps in to help, family and community step back. Government may end up eroding the ability and willingness of family and community to solve problems.
With attention increasingly focused on the behaviour of disadvantaged families and communities, government’s role is changing from enabler to enforcer. Income support payments have become more conditional and harder to access. Government demands that parents send children to school, that jobless young people take advantage of education and training opportunities and that single parents look for work.
Whitlam argued that pursuing equality of opportunity through universal health, education and other services would unite Australians. He accused his opponents of the politics of division. But today it’s Whitlam’s vision that is portrayed as divisive. Taxing the few to provide opportunity to the many is 1970s class warfare.