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Who are ‘we’?

By Don Aitkin - posted Wednesday, 14 October 2015


In my last artilce I gave a generally favourable account of the McAuley/Lyons book Governomics. In this post I want to concentrate on the use of a pronoun that runs throughout their book: ‘we’. The authors use it quite properly to mean themselves, as authors, to set out what they mean and what they are trying to do in their book. But they also use it to mean not just themselves and their audience‚ the readers, but also a more general ‘we’ — the people of Australia. Here’s an example: 

Unless we, the politicians we elect, and the public servants we employ, can articulate what we want from government…[bad things will happen].

I think that the authors have in mind that citizens (it could be wider - residents), politicians and public servants all have to mean the same things when they talk about what government is there for, otherwise there will be confusion and irritation. I agree. But one reason that there is confusion and irritation about the role of government is that there is no uniform ‘we, the citizens’.

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Another example. I spoke at a road safety forum a couple of weeks ago, and there was the same abundant use of the first person plural pronoun, which could mean, in the same breath, almost, ‘we Australians’, ‘we road safety people’, ‘we in our pressure group (cyclists etc)’, ‘we citizens of this town or that one’, or ‘we experts in a particular field’. This list does not cover the whole range of possible uses. I noticed the shades of meaning, but it passed unmentioned, yet one reason road safety is such a difficult area is that all the different ‘we’s have different goals, though they share an interest in road safety.

If I go back to when I was 21, and voting for the first time, ‘we’ could have meant my wife and me, my family and me, my friends and me, and my workmates and me. Mr Menzies could use it to mean all Australians, and sometimes I might agree, but politics was an area where there would be ‘you’ (or your lot) and me (and my lot).

Today there are many different groupings to which any of us can and do belong. I am linked by email and the Internet to half a dozen groups that exist electronically only. And most have international members, too. The notion that Australians all could agree about anything is most dubious. So the control of government, to allow this group or that group to get what they want, is now the prize at election time.

I thought forty years ago that political parties did the sorting-out for us, making sense of the manifold things that were being asked for, simplifying the choices so that we the citizens could make a sensible decision. I don’t think that is so true any more, because that task is just too hard. Many people think there is little difference between the parties, who try to stand for everything and, if necessary, anything. And what groups want is most diverse. None of them, as I wrote some time ago, appears to have any sense of what the ‘general good’ is or might be, and some will say cheerfully that there is no such thing. It’s just my group or your group. Each time they are successful there is more regulation, because that is what governments are for. Regulation is their special skill. As Australia has become wealthier more Australians want risk taken away from them: fences around swimming pools (we didn’t have domestic swimming pools when I was a kid), helmets for cyclists, more and more rules about cars, police checks for visitors to old people’s homes, and so on. All of these desires call upon government to provide more regulations.

I can remember, fifty years ago, a couple of kids climbing on a shed roof, and a neighbour pointing this out to their mother. ‘Yes, she said, they’re kids. That’s what kids do.’ She didn’t tell them to get down. Life used to be like that. Here is an evocation of that past time, by Martin van Crefeld, a historian. He is talking about a lake near Potsdam in Germany, but the time is now.

There is no gate and no gatekeeper to look you over and charge for entry. There are no kiosks trying to sell you this or that. Let alone the kind of blaring music you often get in open air cafes. You can strip naked and leave your things on the little beach, if that is what you like. There are no buoys to tell you how far you can go — in some American lakes I have visited, you are only allowed to wade up to your knees. The kind of rubber boats children use apart, there are no boats to pollute the water with noise and oil. Best of all, there is no lifeguard. You are even allowed to drown if that is what you want. There is no and there is no and there is no.

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The moral? We citizens of “advanced” countries have bound ourselves in endless ribbons, like those used by the police to cordon off crime scenes. On them are printed, instead of the words “keep out,” “freedom, justice, and safety.” Growing tighter by the year, the ribbons have brought us to the point where we can hardly move a limb or open our mouth.

We are surrounded by counselling, sensitivity training, surveillance cameras, mobile phones that track our movements, screening processes, background checks, personality tests, licenses, examinations, certifications, mandatory prerequisites, and mandatory insurance. Not to mention mandatory helmets and goggles and harnesses and bright orange vests with reflective tape when all we want to do is ride a bicycle to the post office. All, we are told, because we are not fit to look after ourselves. And all for our own good.

That is a long extract, but I read his essay with deep understanding, both of what we now have and what we have lost. I do prefer contemporary Australia to what I remember of the Australia of the 1950s. It is wealthier, better educated and more creative, people live longer, and there is much wider range of possibilities and opportunity, for everyone. And note — all the ‘endless ribbons’ were put there by government, acting, so we understand, in our own best interests.

But we contemporary Australians are bound by van Crefeld’s ‘endless ribbons’ in a fashion almost unimaginable in the 1950s. I have some sympathy for McAuley and Lyons in their exploration of the possibilities for a wider remit for our governments. But there is a cost involved when the reach of government expands, and this small post of mine has tried to sketch it; and it has little to do really with economics.

Footnote: I came across Martin van Crefeld and his work on the Fabius Maximus website.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Moving On, was published in 2016.

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