Martin Robinson: Kicking equality myth into touch

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Slashing the All Blacks' pay packets would eventually 
result in a third-rate team. Photo / Rod Burgin
Slashing the All Blacks' pay packets would eventually result in a third-rate team. Photo / Rod Burgin

Reports on the distribution of wealth in New Zealand usually reveal increasing inequality. Rugby is a good example of this widespread trend.

New Zealand rugby players come in all ages, shapes and sizes, and both sexes. Players vary greatly as regards their skill levels, commitment and training schedules. Rewards for players are extraordinarily unequal, as most actually pay to play while a very few are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Is this fair or unfair? Should the Labour Party, the Greens or the Occupy Auckland movement campaign for more-equal payment of rugby players? Should the "greedy" All Blacks be forced to hand over some of their colossal income to the more impoverished fellow players? Should the Government intervene to reduce this glaring disparity in rewards?

Reducing the pay of All Blacks and spreading it among the less well rewarded rugby players, even if it is a good idea in theory, poses immense practical problems.

Would the All Blacks agree to a significant pay cut? If they did, the team would become a 2nd or 3rd XV of players who were willing to play for the reduced reward. We would never beat the Aussies, and maybe the All Blacks team would disappear. So the equality campaign would have succeeded in narrowing pay differentials, but at the cost of destroying the world's greatest rugby team.

The All Blacks management set-up is just like any private enterprise company; the going market rate has to be paid to retain the top talent, whether they be players, coaches, doctors, accountants or the chief executive.

Intervening directly in salaries would be dangerous. A more sensible approach would be for New Zealand to copy Australia and introduce a new 45 per cent tax band on incomes over $180,000. The extra revenue could be spent on scholarships.

Unfortunately, no employer has valued my services at anywhere near $180,000. But if they did, I would not have turned them down for fear of being thought greedy. If someone offered me $400,000 I would gladly accept it without worrying about whether this would make New Zealand a more unequal society. Surely most people would do the same, even those who write articles in newspapers deploring inequality.

If I won Lotto, I would accept the winnings, so I cannot be a hypocrite and whinge about Richie McCaw or some chief executives earning $1 million-plus. Good luck to them.

If someone offers you the money you would have to be a fool not to accept it.

Inequality and the poor will always be with us. People vary greatly in their talents, work ethic and attitudes. Some people are lucky, others are unlucky. Whatever any government does, the lucky and hard-working will tend to be wealthier than the unlucky and lazy.

Every family is unequal. Both my brothers are much richer than I am, but I don't envy them or think there is anything unfair about it. I don't regard them as greedier than I am.

I am the poor relation. If I had worked harder, invested more wisely and spent less time on holiday, I would have more money in the bank, but they are the choices I made. I don't regret anything so I'm content with our financial inequality. When I met my brother on holiday on the Gold Coast, I stayed in a motel-cum-backpackers while he stayed in the Sheraton.

Of course, my attitude could be very different. If I was an envious person, I could deplore the "injustice" of inequality, or blame Rogernomics and the capitalist system. Why should my brother drive around in a BMW coupe while I have a Suzuki? Why should he live in a gated community with a pool while I live in a plain two-bedroom unit? Well, he has earned it and I have not. It's as simple as that.

If I was an alcoholic on welfare, our incomes would be even more unequal, and quite rightly so. I would have no complaint at all.

New Zealand is an unequal society, just like every human society, just like every family. An equal society is impossible, an unworkable nightmare involving zero incentives and gross unfairness. Why should a cleaner be paid the same as a surgeon? It's a ridiculous idea. I've cleaned toilets at the minimum wage but I don't think it was unfair that I was paid less than when I was a teacher.

The All Blacks and some chief executives earn mega-salaries but they also pay stacks of tax. New Zealand's tax and benefit system transfers many billions of dollars from rich Kiwis to poor Kiwis year after year. Unfortunately, the present system of lifelong welfare often traps its victims in poverty rather than helping them to escape.

Every week, a thousand Kiwis are heading to Australia. Is this because Australia is a more equal society than New Zealand? Not one person is going for that reason. They are going because Australia offers more opportunity. Successful societies are the ones that provide the most opportunities, not the ones with the most equality of income or wealth.

The way to reduce poverty in New Zealand is to increase exports, improve workers' skills and productivity, create more wealth and jobs, and then raise the minimum wage.

If New Zealand is becoming more unequal, the answer is for us poorer ones to work and save harder and smarter in order to even things up.

* Martin Robinson is a freelance writer living in West Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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