Where do we go from here?


New Matilda's policy portal decided that before it embarked on discussion of policies in particular areas, it should try to establish values and principles to guide it. In the discussion below, they have not been ranked in any priority order.

Julia Gillard (New Matilda magazine 8 June 05) has spoken of overarching themes and values. She says she's not a good cook, but she uses a very apt cooking metaphor. 'Sending Shadow Cabinet ministers away to develop new policy is a strategic mistake … It is the equivalent of going to the supermarket and coming home with a dozen high quality ingredients, only to find when you get home you cannot make a meal.'

Values are basic, stable and enduring, like 'freedom, equality and fraternity'. Principles are really applied values and will change with time, technology, learning and development. But values will not change.

In the last two centuries, the political struggle has largely been a struggle about class. That struggle is now almost played out in Australia. The future contest will be much more about values.

In discussing values, we have a problem with language. Words are bullets as Richard Denniss (New Matilda magazine 7 June 05) points out. To some the notion of fairness apparently means giving incentives to high-income earners. Some talk about mateship, but punish the most vulnerable in the name of border protection – using immoral means to achieve defensible ends. We talk about the unfairness of queue jumpers only when they come by boat, and not when they come by plane, like Chinese diplomats and thousands of others who seek asylum. In the name of choice and self-reliance, education policies are entrenching privilege. As Des Griffin points out, 'private and commercial is good … public is for them and government should be minimised'.

Ian McAuley (New Matilda magazine 1 June 05) has spoken of updating the 'Australian settlement' of a hundred years ago that Paul Kelly has referred to – White Australia, industry protection, wage arbitration, state paternalism and imperial benevolence. Today many of these principles are not only dated but also repugnant. Mateship excluded women, aborigines and Asians. But the principles did resonate at the time as the way to build a society based on fairness, decency and respect. How do we redefine these principles today in simple, brief and compelling ways?

Lyndsay Connors (New Matilda magazine 1 June 05) speaks of the 'good society' as one in which we have a sense of belonging – where we have opportunities to learn, where there is variety and room for ingenuity, invention, and risk-taking. In the good society, it is easier to be our best selves without giving way to fear, cynicism and alienation.

Dennis Lenihan (New Matilda magazine 8 June 05) speaks of personal worth, respect, human dignity and human flourishing – that people can never be treated as a means to other ends without respect for their dignity. What does that say for our new IR system? He highlights that personal respect must apply to those we disagree with.

Some common themes
Equality of opportunity may be a tired phrase, but it is more important than ever. Fred Argy speaks of equality of opportunity as the key to social mobility and a lubricant of egalitarian Australia.

Elizabeth Evatt points out that legal equality is also essential. That is why New Matilda embarked on its project to promote a charter of human rights.

Don Aitkin asks us to consider 'equality of respect'. He believes that 'any decent discussion requires a capacity to listen to that which is disagreeable while we wait to put another point of view. It is easy enough to talk to those who share our perspectives, much more difficult to reason with those who see things very differently. But there is good evidence on our side. Let's marshal it and talk up the basis for equality of respect and of opportunity, which underpin good policies for the whole nation, not just the fortunate few.'

Graham Vimpani emphasises that outcomes as well as opportunities, are important. When inequality becomes wide and inescapable, some people feel they no longer have a stake in society. They lose trust. Few things break down trust in Australia today more than exorbitant senior executive salaries at the expense of shareholders and the community.

Inequality of outcomes in Australia often exists without class-consciousness, as the recent violence in Redfern and Macquarie Fields shows. It was undirected violence by people who felt that they had no connection with the broader society. Whilst these acts of violence are relatively rare, they are nevertheless part of a community that is growing more and more separated. Our children are being more and more separated in education. Our entertainment is increasingly at home rather than in public areas. Our children are ferried to and from school by car. As Janet Holmes a Court described it, we increasingly live in streets rather than in neighbourhoods. How do we promote social mixing and civility between us all?

Eva Cox rightly emphasises that truth and transparency are vital. Too often as Des Griffin notes, beliefs and dogma are dressed up as facts. There never was a golden age, but the undermining of truthful public discourse has proceeded a pace. Truth is increasingly relative or a matter of opinion. There are now core truths and non-core truths. Morality is invariably projected in narrow sexual terms. The test is not whether the truth is told about going to war, but how we line up on gay marriage.

The delicate fabric of our society depends on truth, trust, honesty and keeping promises. Why are we so squeamish about naming greed and selfishness? Is it because we don't want to offend, so we call it 'aspirations'? Or is it because our moral compass has gone askew? We know that we cannot live life arbitrarily. There are certain things that we should or should not do. But in the end morality is not a divide between people. It is within each of us, the division between our generous and selfish instincts. That is why leadership is so important to encourage 'the better angels of our nature'.

A measure of the civility and decency of any society is how we treat the excluded and disadvantaged. Majorities are good at looking after themselves but minorities can be easily pushed aside when populism stalks the land.

We must all be able to share in the common wealth. As Eva Cox points out, we are citizens, not customers. Because of that, public provision must not just be residual, but good enough for everyone to want it eg education and health. Universality is essential not only for high quality services, but to provide social solidarity and a shared sense of community. 'Opting out' and choice is undermining critical public services.

Markets are valuable, but there are limits to their role. There are inefficiencies and a lack of consumer knowledge. Education, health and public infrastructure depend on public decisions.

Economic growth and prosperity must have a social purpose. Ian McAuley insists that economics must contribute to society. Economic growth is desirable, but the test of economic policy is whether it contributes to society. The economy must not rank ahead of society.

Many have written about inter-generational responsibility. Older generations keep pushing up land and housing prices, while our children can't afford to get started. We are consuming and diminishing our human capital (with failures in education, particularly in early childhood as Don Aitkin outlines); in financial capital (debt); in physical capital (through unsustainable economic development resulting in climate change); and community capital (heavy workloads at the expense of community, family and leisure). We are depleting the capital that we will hand on to future generations. With our growth fetish, we are eating the seed wheat. Brendan Gleeson has called it 'the gathering storm'.

Themes that we have not canvassed
What of national identity? Who are we? Is there a legitimate national identity and pride, which is confident, cohesive and dynamic, yet inclusive, modest and at home in our own region? How do we support diversity in Australia which is based on shared values, institutions and language? Where do enhanced citizenship, the republic and support of Australian arts and culture fit in Australia's future?

What of corporate welfare? Allen Consulting has estimated that Australia has corporate subsidies (industry concessions, tax breaks and tax leakages) worth about $50 b per annum. Why should corporations have rights (to welfare) in the first place? Corporations were given the great legal benefit of incorporation, particularly limited liability, which is not available to persons. That has been transposed to a view that there are somehow 'business interests', as if the interests are separate from those of employees, owners and customers. Even Milton Friedman was loath to refer to 'business interests'. Does corporate welfare have any legitimacy at all? Interestingly, tariffs 100 years ago were largely to promote employment and wages of workers, not to assist corporations.

What of personal responsibility? At the bottom line, our personal wellness must be based on personal decisions we make about our lives. It cannot be any other way. Often 'personal responsibility' is used as code to abrogate our social responsibility. But it is a key issue and we cannot avoid it.

What can we do to promote freedom? Democracy is the compelling ideology of our time. What can we do to enhance the freedom of people from despots, poverty and hunger?

What of democratic engagement and participation? Our institutions are failing us. We feel alienated. Democracy is increasingly a phoney ritual with elections every three or four years. Our parliament is dominated by the cabinet and the party. Ministers and senior officials are not accountable or responsible. The Westminster system is badly eroding. The political parties are dominated by faction heads. Business is run by managers and not shareholders. How do we democratise our institutions or perhaps build new ones? How can we drive decision making to lower and more local levels?

I mentioned earlier how words like fairness, opportunity and choice, have been misused. It is what governments do rather than what they say that matters. What are the governments' real priorities? We have limited resources and money. Choices have to be made. Those priorities and choices really reflect the values of a government. But so often, the noisy, influential and media savvy win the public relations battles and the public resources. An informed and involved community must participate effectively in setting on priorities in Australia. There are ways of doing it. It is much more than voting every three or four years for a government.

What is our response to globalisation which has brought many benefits, but also many problems particularly to the poor and excluded. In the last century, we developed a national response to the failures of the market in national affairs. How do we now develop an international response to market failures?

Where do we go from here?
We would like to receive your comments, criticisms and suggestions about how we build the good society, our common wealth.

We would also like your comments, as Don Aitkin challenges us, as to how we develop these views not only with people who hold similar views, but also with others who are not part of what we are attempting and with some who are actually opposed. Denis Lenihan has spoken of the need for respect for people with different views.

How can we become a more generous decent and modern society based on enduring values?

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