The Value of Merit

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The worst thing the progressive side of politics can do is to demonise the conservatives. When you are out of fashion, as we are, it is easy to feel frustrated and bitter and decry those who have defeated us; I know because I have a tendency to do it myself. But frustration, bitterness and anger won’t win government. It is seen, rightly, as evidence of self-pity.

I spent the weekend reading the many excellent and incisive articles on principles and values, and I saw much that I agreed with. A good society, a fairer society, egalitarianism, tolerance, respect, compassion; indeed, to take the point Don Aitken made in response to one of the pieces, who could disagree with those? Even most members of the Liberal Party would lay claim to such values. The differences between the conservative and the progressive sides of politics are not necessarily what we believe in principle, the difference is in the way we see those principles being achieved.

One of the major differences in our approach is in our attitude to the word merit.

Many years ago, my mother (Kate Caro) helped establish the Liberal (yes, as in Party) Women’s Network. At its inaugural dinner, as President, she made the following point; ‘Women will only have achieved true equality when there are as many mediocre women in positions of power as there are mediocre men.’ Despite being her daughter and therefore naturally resistant to anything my mother said, it was a point that made particular sense to me.

Conservatives, it seems to me, are more likely to believe that those who succeed have done so on merit. Progressives are more likely to attribute success to a combination of luck and privilege.

All my working life I have been told that men and women should be promoted only on merit. Yet I have watched most of the blokes I started out with rocket past me, and the rest of my female peers. If they all succeeded purely on merit, it seems merit is generally something men have and women don’t. Perhaps this is true, although it seems strangely convenient that most of those who are deciding who will be promoted on merit and who will not, are also men. Progressives notice and point out such inconsistencies, conservatives have successfully redefined such arguments as ‘politically correct’ and so damn them out of hand. Ordinary voters, weary of hearing about unfairness that never seems to improve, currently prefer the conservative mind-set.

Any attempt to point out that the playing field in our society is less than level, is termed the ‘politics of envy’, and dismissed. Attempts to alleviate poverty, even by celebrities like Geldof and Bono, are sneered at as do-goodism and useless. The attitude of some conservative commentators seems to be you either fix the whole problem or do nothing at all. The progressive idea that each of us should do what little we can, (like using your fame to focus attention on Africa’s poverty) is seen as woolly headed and is called the ‘politics of the warm inner glow’. (Notice how the other side have all the best phrases? This is also something we need to fix.) Compassion itself is being sneered at, and there is some justice in the sneering. It’s easy to be compassionate when you are comfortable, rich and not threatened; it’s hard when it is your job, your kid’s education and your tiny bit of extra status that is at risk.

More Australians are successful than ever before, particularly financially. We must understand that they do not like being made to feel guilty about their success. They believe, rightly or wrongly, that they earned it and are entitled to it. A recent survey revealing people worth between $1 million and $3 million do not regard themselves as well off – indeed, consider they are struggling – must be taken seriously. One woman protested she had worked hard for her success. What is developing here is a view that success only comes through hard work and is therefore earned. Those who are less successful, therefore, are slackers who deserve what they fail to get. There is a strong Protestant, Calvinist streak in this thinking, exemplified not only in the evangelical churches but also in much New Age gobbledy gook about abundance. Even the idea that people bring cancer on themselves by wrong thinking is extremely anti-compassionate. It seems even those who don’t get cancer are not just lucky, but deserve their disease-free status. Losers, in other words, bring their bad luck on themselves. This is a comforting belief for the fortunate, it enables them to get on with enriching themselves and their kids without so much as a backward glance. No wonder it is a vote winner.

Of course, the current triumph of the idea that success is always deserved is based on fear. It gives people the idea that they can control their fate, that by thinking right, working right, sending their kids to the right schools they can make themselves safe. Success has become the proof that you are not only safe, but right.

Australia, not just our government, is in the grip of such hubris. As we like to remind ourselves constantly, we are the lucky country, but we now believe we deserve that luck, that we have earned it, that there is something special about us that protects us. When one of our own runs out of luck, like Schapelle Corby, loud and shrill are our protestations. Her fate unpleasantly reminds us that we are, in fact, not special and that relying on our luck as a birthright may be a very foolish and short-term idea.

The response to Corby reveals that while safety is an illusion, Australia has been so safe for so many for so long, we’ve forgotten we live in a dangerous world. World Trade Centre, Bali and London notwithstanding, we are determined to believe in our illusion and hate any reminder that we may be deluded.

How then do progressives fight such an overwhelming worldview? Especially one that favours the conservative emphasis on merit, self-reliance and achievement? How do we get our values and principles to have more meaning than the Federal Government’s tacky values poster has to most public school students?

Love, says M. Scott Peck, is not a feeling, it is an action. So it is with values and principles. Such things are easy to preach, elite private schools have literally made a killing out of it, but are only really of value, so to speak, when put into practice. To that end, when we speak of a fairer society, we must demonstrate how we intend to become one. Howard’s fairer society gives more to those he thinks deserve more — the successful.

Ours would give more to those who start out with less. The obvious way to do this is to re-capture one of the Liberal Party’s weakest areas: education. The ALP needs to follow the Irish model and suggest pouring enormous amounts of money into education, from birth up. There is no reason we can’t re-invigorate public schools, there is simply not the political will to do so. We may need to do some fairly radical things, though, and many entrenched interests may have to let go of some sacred cows. Public schools may need to be decentralised, we may need to offer low fee religious schools, of all denominations, full public funding — so they become alternatives within the public system, as operates in Britain, for example. There should be a pre-school and long day care centre in every public school, plus a night school and universities of the third age. We need to bring people back into schools and into learning. The schools are there; they just stand empty much of the time.

One thing we must guard against, however, is the dark side of our attitude to merit emerging. Just as it is foolish to think that success is always based on merit, so it is equally foolish to think that it never is. The progressive side of politics is tainted by the suspicion that we want to punish those who get ahead. In fact, we must emphasise the fact that we are really the only people who actually believe in success based on merit. Succeeding on the basis of anything else, be it luck, entrenched privilege, or membership of the lucky sperm club, is ultimately self-destructive. Too many mediocre people in top jobs, getting there simply because they went to the right schools, are the right gender and know the right people, will cost us all a great deal in the long run. Disenfranchising talent because it was born to the wrong parents, is a tax on all of us, and will hold our country and economy back like nothing else.

These are the arguments we need to make. They reveal that the value of egalitarianism and a fair go is not woolly-headed or idealistic, but hard-headed and practical. Equality of opportunity is the only way we can be sure merit has any real value. Then, and only then, will it be of benefit to us all.

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