Economic Wealth and Political Power in Australia, 1788-2010

By Murray, Georgina; Chesters, Jenny | Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History, November 2012 | Go to article overview
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Economic Wealth and Political Power in Australia, 1788-2010

Murray, Georgina, Chesters, Jenny, Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History

Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows that in 2009/10 the wealthiest 20 percent of Australian households owned 62 percent of total household wealth whereas the poorest 20 percent owned just one percent total household wealth.(1) The average wealth of those in the lowest quintile (the poorest 20 percent) was just under $32,000 and the average wealth of those in the highest quintile (the wealthiest 20 percent) was $2.2 million. (2) One reason for examining levels of wealth inequality is that the wealthy are able to convert their economic power into political power, allowing them to influence governments to pursue policies which allow them to maintain their wealth. (3)

This examination of the wealth of the wealthiest individuals within Australia since the beginning of European settlement shows that the fortunes of the wealthiest Australians mirror the wealth of the nation more generally. In the earliest period before 1850, 28 percent of the colony's wealthiest individuals were former convicts. During the second period, 1850-99, the wealthy were predominantly squatters-free settlers on large tracts of crown land. Between 1900 and 1974, the wealthy were most often industrialists operating in a protected economy. In the later period, 1975 to 2010, the wealthiest Australians held diverse interests, predominantly in the media, property development and mining.

Why write historically about the wealthy and powerful? Because the wealthy and the powerful have either paid for or created the ideological infrastructure in which historiography or history gets written. (4) We want to be part of the reverse trend--to continue writing with a social history bent but not as an act of 'grovelling apology or act of self-abasement and self-laceration' (5) rather in the tradition of social history (6) with an important difference. This difference is found in our argument that economic historians need to feed information to the poor from the rich not the other way around. Therefore we continue to write within the small but rich Australian tradition of political economic history. (7)

From the outset, wealth creation has been tied to the developing colonial, and subsequently, Australian state. Initially, the wealthy were those who bought, sold and controlled goods, services and labour on behalf of investors in the European core--the comprador capitalists. (8) More recently, wealth creation has been tied to developing Australia's vast reserves of mineral resources and property development. In this paper, we examine the sources of wealth of the wealthiest Australians; the relationship between source of wealth and Gross Domestic Product (GDP); and the relationship between wealth and power in the Australian state. We define wealth as the value of marketable assets less the value of debts. We convert the value of the wealth holdings of individuals to 2010 values using the Consumer Price Indexes supplied by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). (9)


Data on the wealth holdings of Australians have not been collected on a regular basis, therefore, we draw on data from a number of sources: (10)

* All-Time Australian 200 Rich List: From Samuel Terry 'The Convict Rothschild' to Kerry Packer written by William Rubinstein in 2004 in conjunction with Business Review Weekly (BRW). Rubenstein estimated the wealth of individuals in both contemporary values and in 2003 dollar values. (11)

* Business Review Weekly (BRW) Rich 200 lists published annually.

* Australian Dictionary of Biography which uses material from the Research School of the Social Sciences at the Australian National University, Canberra.

Using these secondary sources of data we examine the inter-relationship between wealth, power and the state in four key periods:

Period 1, 1788-1849: Early Colonialism. During this period, the Australian colonies were ruled by British Governors and the economies were reliant on exports of agricultural and marine products to Britain.

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Economic Wealth and Political Power in Australia, 1788-2010


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