Eating the Seed Wheat

Our Common Wealth' is not about policies and programs. It is about the values and principles which should underpin policies and programs. It is a statement of where the Centre for Policy Development stands. We have spelled out the values driving our own policy development and we are calling on all political parties, both state and federal, to do likewise.

We decided to develop this manifesto for three main reasons. The first is that we believe Australia is headed in the wrong direction. We are particularly concerned about the long-term implications of policies designed to cater to short-term interests. I am reminded of the frog in steadily warming water which became conditioned and oblivious to the risk and danger it faced until it was too late.

John Menadue (Image: Ian McAuley)

Australia is consuming and borrowing when we should be investing. We are running down our accumulated capital — our common wealth. We are running down our social capital by eroding the bonds of trust within our society. We are running down our human capital by not investing in education and skills. We are running down our physical infrastructure by not building our transport and urban systems. We are running down the planet that we have inherited. We are running down our democratic institutions.

In short, we are eating our seed wheat.

The second reason for ‘Our Common Wealth' is that, as The Centre for Policy Development began to develop policies in portfolio areas such as health, education, and the environment, we quickly realised that we needed a framework of values to consistently guide our policies and programs. Making the process as open as possible, we put drafts of the values statement on our web site and asked for comments. Over twelve months we resolved on five basic values: freedom, citizenship, ethical responsibility, fairness and stewardship. In this way, we hope to avoid some of the many shortcomings in Australian public policy development.

So much of our so-called policy is inconsistent, ad hoc and populist. The ALP proposed policies on forestry and Medicare Gold at the last election and abandoned them within a couple of months. At the beginning of the week, the sale of the Snowy was essential, but by the end of the week, we were told it was absurd to continue. Ideas have given way to marketing as politicians ask: “How do we adjust our so-called policies to what the latest opinion poll or focus group tells us?”

Much of our current political debate is about the economy when it should be mainly about what John Curtin called the ‘social question'. What is the point of economic development if it does not serve a social purpose? Policy debate is now about managerialism — who can manage our affairs better? This is not unimportant, but the primary issue must be who are we managing for, and what do we seek to achieve?

Our third reason for developing this statement is that we hope to build a coalition of people and organizations which share the same basic values, but may have their own particular priorities and emphasis on policies and programs. We share values with many important groups in the community.

– Environmentalists are concerned about the value of stewardship. We share that concern. Our planet just cannot sustain the damage that we are inflicting on it.

– Civil liberties groups are concerned, as we are, about the key value of freedom and how it is being eroded by the breakdown of the separation of powers and the failure of the media to challenge power.

– Social justice groups are concerned as we are about the value of fairness and citizenship.

– Religious and humanist groups are concerned as we are about ethical behaviour — honesty in public life, telling the truth and appealing to the best of Australian instincts and traditions.

– The trade unions believe as we do that economic inequality lies at the heart of many social problems and that fairness and citizenship are critical values.

In ‘Our Common Wealth' we write that values ‘determine our common culture, our collective identity, our sense of belonging and our norms of trust and respect'. We aim to show that they can act as guidelines for our collective behaviour.

How do we put these values into action? That is what policy should be — values in action.

This manifesto sets the agenda for The Centre for Policy Development's future activities — developing values-based portfolio policies and building partnerships with people and groups who hold similar values. That is the challenge we have set ourselves. We will develop policies by the end of this year on health, education, economic policies for working Australians, environment and the media.

As Bill Moyes, formerly of the Public Broadcasting Service in the US, said recently, perhaps people of my generation should apologise for the mess that our young people now inherit, from Iraq to global warming. But whilst apologising might make us feel better I don't know that it would help greatly. I prefer the challenge Bill Moyes makes to our moral imagination:

On the heath (Shakespeare's) King Lear asks Gloucester ‘how do you see the world?' and Gloucester, who is blind, answers ‘I see it feelingly'. I see it feelingly also.

The news is not good these days. But the news is never the end of the story. The news can be the truth that sets us free — not only to feel, but also to fight for the future we want. And the will to fight is the antidote to despair, the cure for cynicism.

What we need is what the ancient Israelites called ‘hochmar' — the science of the heart — the capacity to see, to feel and then to act as if the future depends on you.

Believe me, it does.

This article is an edited version of a speech given at the launch of Reclaiming Our Common Wealth: policies for a fair and sustainable future at NSW Parliament House on Tuesday June 13.

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