Much has been said about values in federal politics over the last few years. The Prime Minister says public education is value-free, others say it’s the Coalition’s values that are at odds with a civilized, just society. The religious right want to deny women access to reproductive health services – abortion, IVF and some contraceptives – in the name of moral values and the disadvantaged are being asked to value mutual obligation as a condition of welfare. Single and widowed parents asked to value work above staying at home with children once they are six while the Prime Minister makes it clear that he values the role of married couples having a parent at home.
The Australian Democrats recently looked at our own values. Our senators, state parliamentarians and the party leadership publicly committed to a values statement.
Those who know the Democrats will recognise no departure from our history here, although this statement is noticeably shorter than the party’s 23 objectives!
In her new book ‘God under Howard the Rise of the Religious Right in Australian Politics’, Marion Maddox accuses John Howard of cultivating an ‘us and them’ mentality, assuring us that our values of decency and a fair go are not put at risk by holding children and others in indefinite immigration detention.
The term ‘political correctness’ has been used to devalue the language of the social progressives and effectively counteract the growing objections of feminists, academics, mainstream churches and social justice groups to the way the race card has been played on Indigenous Australians and asylum seekers, to name a couple of Mr Howard’s ‘them’.
It is an undoubted vote winner, as Linton Crosby demonstrated when he brought these values to the UK elections, lifting the Tories’ vote although not enough to put a dent in Tony Blair’s Labor. That election was all about selective values – the value of the UN versus a pre-emptive strike on a largely defenseless, if corrupt, Iraqi regime that had had little regard for value human life for more than a decade. The Liberal Democrats lifted their vote to an all time high – an endorsement of their politically correct values of social justice and peaceful co-existence under the umbrella of the League of Nations.
But it is not enough to be politically correct. Politics is not for the faint-hearted. In Australia, the meek are unfortunately not likely to inherit balance of power any time soon! We have to be organised and strategic and very determined to defend the values we hold dear.
The Australian Democrats seriously soul searched in order to understand what went wrong in the 2004 federal election and whether our role and values needed to be changed. Our research was comprehensive and included asking members and the public and interviewing people of political influence.
The result was an overwhelming endorsement of the party’s values and a sense that now, more than ever there was a need to contrast these with those of the Coalition and the ALP – their sometime partners in putting populism ahead of decency.
Our problem at the last election was that we failed to articulate our values – integrity, honesty and fairness – and we did not walk the talk when it came to the very public disputes of some years ago.
We were reminded of the party’s 9th objective:
To seek improvement in the quality of human relationships in all aspects of society and the economy, through honesty, tolerance, compassion and a sense of mutual obligation.
The lesson has been learned and the message heard. The Democrats must practice what we preach and preach more effectively.
Four themes will guide the strategy that emerged from our deliberations: The Public Good, A Sustainable Australia, Social Justice & Freedom and Accountability & Truth in Government.
Our vision for Australia in 2025 is a more confident public sector that has the drive and efficiency of the corporate sector but acts in the interests of the public good.
We commit to speaking up for social justice and freedom, for the voiceless, those in poverty and homeless. We have a vision for an Australia that distributes income and wealth fairly, upholds international law and protects the freedoms of its citizens, asylum seekers and all.
Our vision of ‘triple bottom line sustainability’ is an economy that values the natural environment and includes those values in robust decision-making about how resources are used and conserved.
Perhaps the Democrats’ strongest bow is our record and commitment to ‘accountability and truth in government. Accountability to the community through parliament, government and providers of public services is fundamental to the wellbeing of any democracy.
As 30 June draws near, the opportunity of bringing a broader, more inclusive set of values to decision-making in the Senate diminishes. That is unless those members of the Howard Government, uncomfortable with divisive ‘them and us’ campaigning, speak and vote for what’s right and good for the country instead of what’s good for their political survival.