Valuing the important things

We don't value decision-making. Consumerism has made choice so commonplace that we think the 7000-odd items in the supermarket give us some sort of freedom. Our consumer thinking is so refined that the important decisions that affect our lives have been hijacked.

Our education and health systems are now simply a choice between providers. For all the rhetoric about the importance of local communities and their differences, communities have very little control over how they maintain their health and wellbeing. We don't set the agenda for curriculum or local health expenditure.

So, the question posed by John Menadue in online magazine New Matilda is important: How can we drive decision-making to lower and more local levels? Individually, we are good at making decisions. But as communities, we are not involved in the important ones.

Governments and power brokers argue that to be equitable and accountable, we need the hierarchies and structures. Arrogantly, they assume that people are inherently corrupt, so they see local decision-making about these issues as risky. They refuse to acknowledge the reality that people always rort the system, whatever it is, and that by taking responsibility away from communities, they contribute to the decline of community empowerment and community spirit.

Recently, I read an archetypal study with Telstra employees, conducted by the Australian Quality Council (AQC) in the 1990s. The aim was to discover Australia's unique cultural characteristics, and how these shape our approaches to business effectiveness.

Most interestingly, it found that Australians don't like to make decisions.

We like to feel involved in the decision-making process, but when surveyed in the 1990s, we showed a preference for leaders that made decisions and stuck to them. We didn't care so much if we didn't agree with the decision, as long as we felt like we had been listened to.

Of course, in the interest of business effectiveness, it is better to accept this as some form of unchanging Australian characteristic. But it shouldn't be. There are some core values and principles we could adopt to empower local communities to take control of decision-making processes. If we empowered communities to make decisions, the step of devolving power to a more local level would be made easier.

To do this effectively, the Left needs to find a way to value and uphold family in a new way. In his recent book, The War over Work, Don Edgar says, 'I would hold that Labor has never been sympathetic to the cause of family life because it has seen the family as an institution subversive to the loyalties and sacrifice demanded by the party, the unions, the cause of social justice against bourgeois, consumerist, self-interested family goals.'

Clive Hamilton has been sharing similar sentiments. At the launch of the Australia Institute's Wellbeing Manifesto, he responded to those who questioned the Manifesto's silence on underprivileged and minority. The Wellbeing Manifesto asks a different and daring question: while everyone should have the right to participate fully and equally in society, do we have a society in which everyone would want to participate?'

Both Edgar and Hamilton are trying to steer the current political alternative away from a politics of minority, and towards a politics of family and community.

We need to value place-based community: not disparate communities joined by ideas or Internet connections, but the suburbs and townships in which we live. Communities of place are diverse in their ideas and opinions, but all share services, facilities and local environs. They are different to the new communities based on shared values and similar interests. Communities of place will always have ongoing tensions and inequalities, but they harbour the diversity of human experience. And diversity of experience in human systems is as crucial as biological diversity in our ecosystems.

In our desire to embrace and be open to the global community, we no longer value our neighbours, the bloke at the servo or the people who bake our bread.

To value community in this way, we must value family. Family is the basic building block of local community. But we need to overcome the narrowly defined concept of family that the Left always shies away from, because of its historically religious and right wing overtones. We may do well to think of family in the same way indigenous Australians do: we need to embrace a broader, extended family based not simply on blood ties or union membership, but on how we support and engage with each other.

If we renew our commitment to the values of family and place-based community, we will reconnect with our natural desire to make decisions about our children's education, our health services and other systems for which government currently takes control. When more of society feels capable of making those decisions, we will find that the devolution of decision-making power requires what others have already discussed in this policy portal: trust and respect.

Decision-making and policy development at a local community level does not need a new vision. New vision is simply new rhetoric to make people feel better about themselves.

If anything, we need an old vision: a return to more localised media and news, reinvigorating old-style communication networks and filling community with the routine of weekly events. A commitment to our neighbours, before our managers.

We need a vision where smaller is better and where we act local, think local and allow our localities to thrive.

Leave a Comment