On Life’s Lottery by Glyn Davis

Reviewed by Gerard Healy

An informed look at intergenerational poverty in Australia by Glyn Davis AC, the former Vice-Chancellor of Melbourne University. It is both an easy read and a hard-to-read text, the former because it is only 70 odd pages long but the latter because it asks us what we are doing to solve the problem.

The statistics on poverty in Australia are alarming. According to the Poverty in Australia 2020 report there are 3.24 million Australians living below the poverty line, which is 13% of the population (p 11). This includes 3 / 4 million children. What is worse is that for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the poverty levels are almost double that of other Australians. Sadly, this has generally been the case for at least a decade.

The above figures were compiled before the Covid19 economic downturn last year which hit the disadvantaged in a particularly hard way.

Ursula Le Guin’s short story ‘The One Who Walked Away from Omelas’ is referenced at each end of this work. Omelas is a happy place for most to live in but at the cost of one miserable, deprived child who everyone is aware of. The catch is that, if the child is rescued, everyone loses their well-off lifestyle. Some cannot bear the child’s suffering and leave. To what extent, if any, fictional Omelas reflects us is a moot point.

Poverty is a moral and political issue, of course. Davis says that Australia is in the bottom third of OECD countries when it comes to overall taxes and government expenditure (p 21). Europeans top the list and the US is just below us. He argues that judging by how we have tended to vote federally for most of the past few decades (Liberal/ National), we are more inclined to the lower taxes-less spending combination than the alternative.

He contrasts this with the approach taken after WW2 in the UK by PM Clement Atlee. Only Government can address causes and not just symptoms of social problems, Atlee argued, while introducing ambitious schemes like the NHS.

Davis looks at charities, from their beginnings in 1813 when The Benevolent Society was established to the over 56 000 not-for-profit registered organisations now. Collectively, we give more than $12.5 billion annually, while business kicks in another $17.5 billion (p 24). Impressive figures, but Davis explains that paying our taxes and giving to charities (80% of us in some form) won’t, by itself, make significant long-term differences.

He puts forward some encouraging proposals for change. Firstly, the Victorian initiative called Our Place, which began in 2012 at Doveton College in Melbourne, and now extends to ten sites across the state. The idea was to use the local Primary School in a disadvantaged area as a site where various integrated services could be delivered. So, pre-school and education support, health services and even transition to work programs were provided. Davis cites 2020 data from Dr Dennis Glover, himself a product of Doveton, that showed “much to celebrate’ (p 38) such as improved academic results and lower unemployment rates.

One statistic that jumped out at me was that a majority of Australians in custody are the child of a parent jailed in the past. (p 41). For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth, this is particularly troubling. However, there’s some positive news, with a different approach to justice issues showing results in Bourke, in western NSW. Some of the steps are practical, such as getting birth certificates to access services like a driver’s licence. Other steps involve difficult conversations on domestic violence, drugs and alcohol and mental health. As Davis notes, when community sets the agenda, authority is shared and charities become part of the policy process, these well-led partnerships can transform lives (p 50).

But as Davis admits, it’s a long, hard road before progress is made.

A third avenue of hope is social impact enterprises, which can take several forms. Vanguard Laundry Services in Toowoomba (p 64) run a business employing local people, keen to return to work after struggling with mental health issues. Then in Adelaide, The Aspire Social Impact Bond take investors capital and helps secure social housing for a reasonable financial return (p 65).

In such a short book, it is difficult to cover all the issues in depth. However, I did wonder why Davis hadn’t made more of the issue of financial illiteracy and gambling addictions, which hold back many poorer people in a spiral of debt. For a first-hand account by an informed person on these issues, try ‘On Money’ by Rick Morton (2020).

I would recommend this short book to everyone. If, like me, you were born lucky, it makes you realise your great, good fortune and the moral debt you owe to those who weren’t so lucky.

Glyn Davis was born in 1954 in Sydney. He attended Marist Brothers Kogarah, UNSW and the ANU. He lectured at Griffith University in political science, later becoming Vice Chancellor. He has worked in the public service as well as publishing several books. He is married to Margaret Gardner, the Vice Chancellor of Monash University.

Davis is now CEO of the Paul Ramsey Foundation.

On Life’s Lottery


by Glyn Davis

Hachette Australia

ISBN: 978 07336 46515

80pp; $16.99

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