Words are bullets


John Howard said last week that we are all environmentalists now. While that may have come as a surprise to some, it shouldn't have. Over the past decade there has been a slow but steady shift going on, not in John Howard's values, but in the definition of environmentalism. It is no longer a radical claim to confess a concern with the state of the natural environment. On the contrary, no prime ministerial aspirant can now be seen to be indifferent to environmentalism. In politics words are bullets, and there is no safer strategy than stealing your opponents' ammunition. Not only do you rob them of their own arsenal, you can sit back and enjoy the confusion as they try to figure out how to defend themselves against the weapons they so carefully designed. Of course it is not just the term environmentalist that has been stolen by the Coalition Government; on the contrary, it is simply a recent acquisition. Words like fairness, mutual obligation, sustainability, and security were lost years ago. Some are still mourning their loss, but there are even fewer dedicating themselves to the construction of new words, new concepts and new ideas. Defining values, be they political or personal, requires words that everyone can understand. While it is convenient to fall back on claims for the desirability of 'fairness', 'equity', 'justice' and 'freedom', such an approach achieves almost nothing when the terms are contestable and when they cannot be used as a predictor of actions and priorities. John Howard is as entitled to claim that his changes to the income tax system are fair as any other politician. While we all carry around our preconceptions of what fairness is, no-one has a monopoly on such truths. It is more useful to judge a person or a political party by observing their actions rather than listening to their words. John Howard's notion of fairness prioritises the need to 'reward the effort' put in by high income earners ahead of the need to improve the material living standard of the poorest Australians. It is, however, important to note that it is the priorities, not the statements of desire, that matter the most. That is, John Howard would never suggest lower taxes for low income earners are not desirable, on the contrary, but what matters is the way his priorities guide his actions, not his expressed desire that everyone should be better off. When considering the need to 'strengthen' Australia against attack from terrorists the same analysis should apply. Few people will disagree that 'security' is important. Even fewer will disagree with the need for the federal government to 'balance' the need to treat asylum seekers with compassion and the need to defend Australia against infiltration by terrorists (with a fear of flying). The public debate hinges on the definitions of 'security' and 'balance', when the public's judgement should be based instead on the way that arbitrary detention is prioritised ahead of compassion. Actions speak louder than words. Any attempt to define a new set of 'values' and 'principles' for public policy in Australia must pay as much attention to the objectives they seek to achieve as they do to the words that are chosen to describe them. Politics involves hard choices, and it is the choices that individuals and political parties make that define their values, not the words they use to explain them. The Howard government has made some hard choices that highlight their priorities. In the 1996 budget the Howard Government scrapped the subsidised dental scheme for aged pensioners citing the need to reduce public spending, lower the budget deficit and, in turn, reign in the current account deficit. At the time the Government said that it was simply delivering 'responsible' fiscal policy. In the nine budgets since then the Government has yet to find the $100 million it took from those pensioners. Not even in the Prime Ministers $60 billion pre election spendathon could those scarce dollars be found. The fact is, reducing the dental pain experienced by retirees has not been a priority for this government. It is such priorities that clearly illustrate the values of a political party. It is much easier to speak of priorities from the sidelines of the budget process than it is from the Coalitions Cabinet room. While budgets are always followed with claims of 'missed opportunities' from every overlooked NGO and interest group, it is rare to hear from a group volunteering to give up their funding in order to improve the lot of another. It is much easier for opposition political parties to ferment dissatisfaction with the Government's priorities than it is to state how they themselves would resolve such tensions. Advocates of a new politics need to be clear about both their priorities, and about the inevitability that all sectors of society can be made better off without making another worse off. If we are to move beyond the current logjam in public debate we need to be honest about the need to achieve some goals before we pursue others. The Australian economy grew by more than $25 billion in 2004, yet we failed to direct that growth towards indigenous health, the public school system or to protect the natural environment. We did, however, make inroads into our priority areas of solving the shortage of mobile phones among 12 year olds and increasing the proportion of homes with flat screen televisions. As a rich nation we cannot do everything we want, but we can do almost anything we want. If we chose our priorities carefully, we can design policies to achieve almost any goal. It might mean that some of us have to wait a bit longer before we can call go overseas on holidays each year, but it is not beyond our grasp if it is important enough to us. The development of a new politics requires the development of a new way of setting priorities, and the development of a new language to communicate those ideals. And having put the hard work into developing, refining, and promoting those ideals, we have to fight much harder to hang on to the words that describe them. We can't just sit by and watch our ammunition get taken from us.

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