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Dismay over democracy: alternative policies for 2017

By Stuart Rees - posted Friday, 13 January 2017


In the wake of Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the prospect of right wing successes in European elections and, in Australia, the rudderless Turnbull government, social analysts insist that citizens have lost faith in democracy.   

In response to public dismay about capitalism and democracy, plus major political parties’ fear of an angry populism, Professor John Hewson has argued that the status quo should be thrown out and replaced by a complete policy re-think. I wrote a re-think analysis and submitted it to the Sydney Morning Herald who replied that they would not publish. Although that newspaper is always pleased to publish material from the representatives of a certain lobby, they were not interested in this topic. They seemed to assume that the public is seldom interested in serious analyses.

Nevertheless, here for another readership is the re-think. It requires a reversal of the market-oriented convention that tinkering with an economy must precede efforts to build a just society: economy first, society later. A reversal of that way of thinking begins by emphasizing commitments to human rights and to social justice as catalysts for a vibrant economy.

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The consequences of injustice

Sir Michael Marmot’s 2016 Boyer Lectures stressed the social and financial costs of injustice as illustrated by the links between ill health and crime, by the negative effects of poverty on early child development and by the formula – the fewer the years of education, the higher the risks of early death.

His perspectives on inequalities produce two policy priorities: the need to promote equal educational opportunities, hence the value of Gonski-type funding; the need to defend and extend Medicare, not least by paying belated attention to mental and dental services.

Sir Michael repeated his concern about the limited life expectancy of Aboriginal people, the country-wide rates of youth suicide and the obscene rates of incarceration of Indigenous citizens. Each of those outcomes expresses violence. It is a violence defined by evidence of physical force but also by a stifling of individuals’ opportunities for development.  

Australian politicians acknowledge the consequences of domestic violence and have supported the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the sexual abuse of children, but there’s little evidence of thinking of Australia as a non-violent culture. They could do so by investing in non-violent ways of crafting policies, yet highly expensive and counter-productive forms of control and punishment persist, as in the continued abuses of the rights of asylum seekers, limited support for refugees and the counter-productive war on drugs.

A more socially just economy

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Changing stereotyped views about taxation could influence the management of an economy and affect vision about a country’s social and cultural objectives. Yet politicians and certain media commentators seem to think it is suicidal to refer to taxes in other than negative terms. A longer term, historical view shows progressive income taxation as a positive phenomenon, the way to build a rights-with-responsibilities obligation of citizenship, a means of confronting inequalities, a crucial building block of a civil society.

Over time, the argument about social justice as a catalyst for national economies can be demonstrated in Nordic countries whose commitment to strong economic growth has included investment in people, as in regulated working conditions and substantial welfare provision.

Using commitments to social justice as yardsticks to assess the merits of economic policies also raises questions about transparency and accountability for government expenditure. Although all aspects of government expenditure should be subject to scrutiny and in spite of governments’ neuroses about budget deficits, two large areas of expenditure are somehow protected.        

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About the Author

Stuart Rees is Professor Emeritus of the University of Sydney and Founder of the Sydney Peace Foundation. He is the former Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation (1998-2011) and of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (1988-2008), and a Professor of Social Work (1978-2000) at the University of Sydney.

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