The Common Wealth – Vision and values: Are they enough right now?

New Matilda's policy portal embarked on a project to articulate a set of values that should underpin policy development in Australia. The Common Wealth was the first articulation of these values. CPD continues this project.

Vision and values matter. Policies and programs are driven – given expression – by vision and values. We imagine that if we share the same values we will act the same way. Some people can sign up to values but when put to the test find they don't agree with them after all. The larger and more diverse the group the more difficult it is to gain commitment to common values. Achieving agreement on values requires commitment, political will.

In a civilised society everyone builds relationships with others and works consciously to reinforce those relationships as part of a community. A community shares common values. Citizens take responsibility for the consequences of their actions and respect other people and their dignity as human beings; these matters are codified in laws along with rules which preserve safety and ensure contractual arrangements are honoured and so on.

It seems obvious but apparently it isn't!

In a civilised society people don't talk about being swamped by Asians. Nor do they label those who live in public housing estates, who lack work and seemingly even a meaningful future, even though they may be young, as scum or non-humans. They recognise that inequities represent lost potential and lost opportunities. They embrace opportunities to meet different people with different beliefs as ways of expanding their world-view. And they know that the future depends on people first, not technology.

Many basic values have already been framed and largely agreed to. They address social justice and human rights. They are universal and constant. They are ones which numerous intelligent politicians and statesmen have advanced in many countries. They are possibly ones which the Irish at Vinnegar Hill near Parramatta thought they were pursuing in 1804, ones which Peter Lalor and the diggers behind the Eureka Stockade believed they were fighting for, ones at the heart of the struggle by shearers in 1896. And certainly ones fought for in two world wars, even when foreign generals were failing their responsibility.

They are truths expressed in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights:

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,
Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people, …

Subsequent Conventions gave further effect to those values in the last fifty years. Discrimination on almost any ground is prohibited, along with unsafe and inequitable workplaces. Cultural property is to be preserved. Everyone is to have access to education. And so on. But now the Declaration and many of the Conventions are treated as archaic, something on the margin And the United Nations itself is blamed for failures of the states party to it.

More recently such values formed the brave preamble of the Constitution for the Republic of South Africa, framed by people once classified as terrorists and now applauded as champions of truth and reconciliation.

Very importantly, they are also enshrined in the statement in which 1,000 Australians committed themselves to 'walk together on this land' as they stood as one in Melbourne – indigenous and non-indigenous – at a conference in May 1997 to commemorate the 1967 referendum which changed the constitution to recognise indigenous peoples as citizens.

… we commit ourselves to reconciliation and building better relationships so we can constitute a united Australia, respecting the land, valuing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage and providing justice and equity for all.

When, hardly five years ago, nearly a million people asked for further action – reconciliation, recognition of past injustices – the response was practical reconciliation, another way of delivering grossly inadequate resources whilst wages due remain unpaid.

The barrage of advertising and media reporting overruns the values we have established, politicians demand adherence to inappropriate symbols: salute the flag, look to the actions of people barely known to us, to events representing defeat, to symbols that are superficial. Australia isn't a traditional society in which accepted authorities are listened to as the source of wisdom. Are we even aware that there is such a thing as wisdom?

Australia's involvement thousands of miles away in Iraq in a conflict based on lies was protested but those protests were ignored, even branded as unpatriotic.

Australia once opened its arms to refugees from terror and oppression. Now we decide who can be admitted into our land, those refugees imprisoned and tortured, driven to insanity and those responsible deny their responsibility, are rewarded even. When Malcolm Fraser drew attention to this, politicians he hardly recognises as of the party to which he belongs, talked of the Liberal Party's democracy and blamed him for the present ills of Zimbabwe.

Problems in the workplace that intelligent industry leaders elsewhere would have worked to overcome are confronted by extravagant legislation which is no more than an attack on a major source of funding to one political party. Evidence of its inappropriateness is responded to by claims that common sense is what matters, not the views of academics. Now the workplace has become no more than a concentrated symbol of what Patrick White concluded was Australia after all: an uncommonly good place to make money.

Institutions which encourage thinking and ongoing debate, like the ABC, the Australia Council, our history museums, are invaded by ideologues with no great respect for the diversities and ambiguities of history, truth even.

Achievement in education depends largely on encouraging better individual performance, not competition, and on respect for and providing resources to, teachers and carers, especially those of the very young. Instead we focus on tests and the competitive spirit. The Minister is the expert and the source of good policy is a few parents he meets, not the mountains of research.

The failure to invest in training and development is returning a skill shortage to be overcome by stealing the already trained of other countries. Business calls for investment in education and in infrastructure renewal but government remains resolute whilst the already skilled leave important jobs for better paid ones. Meanwhile the surplus in the operational budget is continually brought out and showed around like the Bledisloe Cup and the Commonwealth Government promotes itself as a reformer with the privilege of dispensing the citizens' taxes to the inefficient States.

Violence, physical and mental, first of all in our own homes, is condemned in the media by the self-righteous but next to nothing is done about it. Economics is disregarded when it comes to the homeless, the mentally ill, the poor.

Barry Jones, in a seminar at Sydney University late 2005, pointed out that the cult of management has become a dominant factor in public life arising from the conviction that expertise creates serious distortions in policy making through the exercise of self-interest: generic managers such as accountants or economists provide a detached view. Indeed, it has been agreed, there are no health, education, transport, or environment problems, only management problems: get the management right, and all the problems will disappear. His 'Knowledge Nation' was too difficult and too costly, not least in the eyes of his own people. There was no comment in the media on his talk; but then Jones never was listened to.

Our future depends on the intellectually demanding business of addressing the extraordinary complexity of views about the influences of family, schooling and higher education, health care, disease prevention, family life, environmental conservation and land-use, gaining from the earth's resources but preserving intergenerational equity. But experts' views are treated as subservient to the expertise of politicians who do no more than represent narrow sectional interests and their opportunistic ideology.

There is talk of totalitarianism.

Yes, we can discuss values. But in doing so we seem to be accepting the new structures and the new rules. Of course we agree with community engagement, equity, stewardship and fairness and everything that flows from them. As Jocelyn Scutt said, it isn't enough to write letters or articles. We are complicit until the injustices have been overturned. Will reasserting the values overturn the injustices?