Australia is often seen as an egalitarian country, or as a country which used to be egalitarian, but whose egalitarianism is under threat

From the first source:

It would be fair to say that Australia is one of the most egalitarian nations in the world. While many countries celebrate the ideal of human equality, arguably none has it so culturally engrained as Australia. The ideological bias towards equality is most clearly seen in the language that Australians use to communicate with each other. In comparison to other English speakers, Australians tend to be far more informal; readily using the same language when dealing with a boss, an elderly person, friend or rapscallion. In a famous example, when cricketer Dennis Lillee met the Queen, he greeted her with a handshake and a friendly “g’day, how ya go’in”

From the second source:

Australians have long cherished egalitarianism as a defining — if not the defining — characteristic of our national culture. We like to think of our country as a place where anyone can improve their lot in life through hard work, determination and resourcefulness. We embrace the underdog, cut tall poppies down to size, and go to great lengths to distance ourselves from what we see as the rigid class system of our British forebears.

But as the experience of Sharma — and a raft of statistics — demonstrate, it’s harder for those on the margins of society to get ahead than many Australians would like to believe.

Do objective studies confirm that compared to other countries, Australia is or was an egalitarian country?

  • 2
    The first quote seems to be celebrating a small Power Distance Index, while the second quote seems to be lamenting low economic mobility. They can both be true. My point is that "egalitarian" seems ill-defined.
    – Oddthinking
    Feb 11, 2015 at 23:33
  • The whole question doesn't seem answerable as asked. I'm going to close until we figure out what to do with this one. Feb 13, 2015 at 3:34

2 Answers 2


As @Oddthinking has pointed out, the term "egalitarian" is ill-defined; does egalitarian mean:

  1. equality of opportunity, or
  2. equality of outcomes?

Once you have decided on this, do you mean equality in:

  • income,
  • wealth,
  • political power,
  • social standing,
  • education,
  • health,
  • body mass index (just kidding)

Your first quote and the first paragraph of the second quote appear to refer to "Australian egalitarianism" as a social construct - an equality of outcome in social interactions i.e. one person is not better than another because of distinctions in birth, wealth or education.

The first article is clear and consistent and is to my mind, as an Australian, what is meant by "Australian egalitarianism". This is and always has been a relative measure - Australian interactions are less formal than European and even American - titles and honorifics (even Mr & Ms) are rare outside of very formal situations and anyone can be addressed as "mate" - regardless of sex, ethnicity or social status. I know this makes my sister-in-law (an Austrian) extremely uncomfortable.

What we are dealing with here is a cultural identity or myth - like all myths it is about how should be - not about how they are or were. Just as Americans want to believe in "the land of the free" and the French in "libertie, egalitie and fraternitie", Australians want to believe that their society is fair and equitable - it isn't, never has been, never will be.

However, the second part refers to an equality of economic opportunity and the article as a whole generally conflates these two very different definitions of egalitarianism.

Equality of economic outcome is easier to measure than equality of economic opportunity so lets get that out of the way first, see

From these, income inequality has increased slightly over the past 40 years by some measures but Australia was about in the middle of the OECD countries then and is still in the middle now. So it has changed but not a lot.

The second article you cite is talking generally about equality of economic opportunity and specifically cites a paper by Dr Leigh which is at best tangential to the anecdotal case the article is about. That paper compares intergenerational income mobility between fathers and sons who were both born in Australia. It is worth quoting the abstract:

Combining four surveys conducted over a forty year period, I calculate intergenerational earnings elasticities for Australia, using predicted earnings in parents’ occupations as a proxy for actual parental earnings. In the most recent survey, the elasticity of sons’ wages with respect to fathers’ wages is around 0.2. Comparing this estimate with earlier surveys, I find little evidence that intergenerational mobility in Australia has significantly risen or fallen over time. Applying the same methodology to United States data, I find that Australian society exhibits more intergenerational mobility than the United States. My method appears to slightly overstate the degree of intergenerational mobility; if the true intergenerational earnings elasticity in the United States is 0.4–0.6 (as recent studies have suggested), then the intergenerational earnings elasticity in Australia is probably around 0.2–0.3.

What this says is that there is greater intergenerational equality of economic opportunity in Australia than in the US and that this has not changed significantly over time. Put another way, what your father earned has less impact on what you earn in Australia than in the US. This of course cuts both ways - social mobility is not always upwards.

This is then used as a basis for decrying the economic opportunities of a person who is:

  • not born in Australia
  • has a father who presumably was not born in Australia
  • not educated in Australia
  • is a relatively recent immigrant
  • from an English as a second language country
  • working in an unskilled job.

The proposition that because this person does not earn a lot and has little prospect of bettering themselves; therefore Australia is no longer egalitarian is riddled with logical fallacies, both formal and informal.


TLDR: Australia has a strong adherence to egalitarianism within social circles which isn't necessarily reflected in income.

Economically Diverse

Australia has a wide variety of socioeconomic "classes" like most societies. Although not clearly divided into classes (like the Indian Caste System) there is a distinct income scale. For example, the 6th wealthiest female (the beautiful Gina Rinehart - $17B) is Australian and yet poverty is not uncommon with some estimating 13% below the poverty line.

Socially Uniform

However, (and I feel like this is where the quoted articles are coming from) within social groups there is a strong urge to "be the same", to not stand out. In Australia (and other Anglo-based nations), this is known as "Tall Poppy Syndrome".

Tall poppy syndrome is the term used to...

...describe a social phenomenon in which people of genuine merit are resented, attacked, cut down, or criticised because their talents or achievements elevate them above or distinguish them from their peers.

The term is often used with negative connotations eg. When a friend has a better car, house, wife, etc it is common that they will be riled because of the item that distinguishes them from their peers.

Tall poppy syndrome has a positive side with Australia's "underdog" culture.

Australia and New Zealand's usage of the term has evolved and is not uniformly negative. In Australia, a long history of "underdog" culture and profound respect for humility in contrast to that of Australia's English feudal heritage results in a different understanding of "tall poppy syndrome".

I saw an excellent example of this in the news recently. A woman experienced some negative situation and the community gathered around her family and built her a new home.

  • Do you have any empirical evidence that the Tall Poppy Syndrome is most prevalent in Australia?
    – Oddthinking
    Feb 12, 2015 at 6:59
  • @Oddthinking, I wouldn't say it's "most prevalent in Australia" compared with other nations because I don't know the cultures of every other nations. But the Wikipedia page focuses almost entirely on Australian culture.
    – Coomie
    Feb 13, 2015 at 1:12
  • There's no evidence here that Australia is any more socially uniform than other countries. There is only evidence that Australians describe themselves as more egalitarian. (Although, arguably "tally poppy syndrome" doesn't describe an egalitarian society, if people with merit are cut down for no other reason than doing well.)
    – Oddthinking
    Feb 13, 2015 at 3:10

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