How do we define fair?

Can we advance Australian Society and Human Civilisation?

In asking what is fair and whether we can support a fairer Australia Eva Cox highlights issues and values which many of us thought had become enshrined in Australian life. But as she rightly observes, two decades of neoliberal cant has lessened expectations of our government and changed the way we think about our society. To some, government involvement now equates with coercion. Private and commercial is good, public is for them and government should be minimized. Ian McAuley, in these pages, has skilfully explained the consequences of those economics and our ‘opt-out’ society. Here are two facts: we are still a ‘dig it up and ship it out’ economy and arts, science and sport distinguish Australia internationally, much more than does business enterprise.

Leadership seems to have gone by the board. I mean leadership in promoting belief in values which will sustain society. In its real sense leadership is about the development of people, giving opportunities to achieve one’s full potential, to believe in one’s own goals. Leadership is essential in the development of values on which policies are based. Leadership means development, in the words of Nobel economics laureate Amartya Sen, means freedom, freedom to choose. (And voters choose leaders and values: they trust that governments will implement policies to achieve the values.)

Fairness is an Australian value. But it seems to have been bypassed or its meaning changed. It no longer seems to encompass a concept of equity, of opportunity for all. Indeed ‘all’ has been replaced by ‘some’. So decisions on who lives here, who gets to advance through education, of who lives decently and even that central tenet of democracy, who influences where we are going, is reserved to those in power and the citizenry is largely marginalised, notwithstanding vigorous debate and even street demonstrations. Those groups that give voice to ordinary citizens are losing government funding and their tax deductibility removed if they stand in the way of government mandated advance.

In the current political and economic debate beliefs are dressed up as facts. It is as if we have returned to a pre-Newtonian time: no need to look for evidence, repetition of beliefs is evidence enough for the belief. Nor do we look at those situations where outcomes seem to have been successful and explore the conditions which have led to that. We have simply accepted the words on the tablets brought down from the mountain, or in this case from over the sea. How Australian! Ireland is only a flash in the pan, Scandinavia over-taxes its citizenry, in Asia families look after themselves so social welfare isn’t needed.

Our special relationship with the US leads to a free-trade agreement which makes it easier for American companies to buy Australia and exposes pharmaceutical price regimes and intellectual property to possible destruction. We try to keep ‘different’ people out of our country but as a government do little, with the notable exception of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, to improve economic (or political) conditions in other countries which might lesson at least economic immigration, as well as being humanitarian.

Investment in high quality education for all has brought improved lives in many countries yet Australia is pricing it out of reach of many and forcing naive ‘solutions’ on university workplaces which do not address any existing problem. Early childhood care is absolutely critical, improving educational attainment and social relationships and reducing crime in later years but we have had years of minimal funding in it despite increased workplace participation. Poverty, homelessness and disability are exacerbated by rigid strategies to reduce welfare. Workplaces, through casualisation, restructuring and downsizing, are as stressful as ever, leading to reduced self efficacy and increasing health costs whilst themselves achieving no productivity growth, only a new language of rightsizing and flexibility. More than 30 years of significant research on authentic and transformational leadership and the actual experience of successful enterprises have been ignored. This is not universal but it is certainly predominant.

France and Germany can come to terms with centuries of armed conflict but we can’t come to terms with the Indigenous owners of this land or apologise officially for past actions.

As individuals we need to be more engaged. We cannot regress past a pre-Newtonian phase of human existence to the pre-human phase where the relationships which characterize us as humans, build society and distinguish us from our relatives in the great Ape family are ignored. We cannot become uncivilized.

We surely must engage in talking through values to be shared if we are to have a cohesive society. Constant concern with values builds culture, the way we do things around here. A commitment to truth and honesty would be a good idea, especially from those in political groups of all kinds at all levels. We should revitalise that Australian reluctance to accept what we are told without question: we should demand more thought, more evidence. Countervailing forces and institutions which generate doubt and question orthodoxy are essential in a working and confident democracy.

Trust and appreciation (not just tolerance) of difference broadens our understanding of what it means to be human and engenders innovation. Welcoming the diversity of human expression and culture, of age and background in all communities, enriches us all. Acknowledging the complexity of democracies and the inherent ambiguity of life, if approached with the help of what we have already learned, will be a satisfying and challenging, rather than a threatening, experience.

Rejecting the market as a device to fix everything engages us in making decisions which affect us rather than our simply being the recipients of someone else’s decisions. Compassionate concern for fellow citizens builds human capital. What a contrast this might be with the decades of neoliberal cant.

Governments must see investment in the future as their principal role. The present lack of skills, the failures in the environment, the decrease in tolerance, the narrowness of our economic base, our dismissal of anything that isn’t priced, like work at home, appreciation of culture for its own sake, intellectual discourse, are all consequences of a failure to invest. Just like the paying down of debt instead of investment in public infrastructure in transport, health and education. You can’t eat a surplus!

This is not 1776 or 1792. We don’t need to merely assert the importance of justice, of rights to life, liberty and happiness. More than four centuries of systematic inquiry has provided the evidence we need to support the proposition that they do indeed generate a better society, even in economic terms.