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What the world needs now is …

By Don Edgar - posted Wednesday, 25 September 2013

After a vitriolic election and years of dog-eat-dog politics it would be nice to think we might return to some semblance of human decency and mutual respect.

Prime Minister Abbott is trying to remake his image. As the mature father figure of the nation rather than attack dog he may restore some calm but we wait to see how well his Santamaria-based grounding translates into compassion for the refugees and empathy for the disadvantaged against the more extreme positions taken in the lead up to his victory.

Labor too is busy remaking its image, from a party riddled with selfish factionalism to a more democratically elected leadership and return to traditional values of equity and a fair go. Yet the rumblings already begin about Caucus versus people power and potential distrust of one already mired in the overthrow of two previous leaders. Will the undermining stop?


Politics is the quintessential arena where human nature and its contradictions are laid bare. The essential selfishness of the individual, fighting for survival, status and power has to be overlaid with that other core element of human nature – empathy and the cooperation it engenders in everyday life. Maggie Thatcher's ridiculous comment that 'there's no such thing as society' ignores the path taken in human evolution from nomadic individuals in competition with one another to groups of cooperating human beings working towards a common end.

Anthropological and genetic research now shows that the human being is genetically programmed for altruism as well as for selfishness. The two are in constant conflict (we are sinners as well as saints) but it is clear that altruistic groups survive better than groups of selfish individuals and there is a political message in this.

We remain individuals but we need and crave group membership, the cohesion of the band, if we are to survive in a world more complex than a primitive tribal group. Tribalism of course engenders conflict between groups but it is also based on empathy and that Golden Rule that is fundamental to all moral reasoning: Do unto others as you would have done unto yourselves. Only psychopaths fail to feel the pain of others and geneticists now say to be human is to be a complex mix of emotional traits ranging from self-consciousness (guilt, shame and embarrassment), feeling of the pain of others (through sympathy, compassion and empathy), praising of those who help others, condemning those who cheat on others and scorning those who try to raise themselves too high above the pack.

Politicians who present themselves as having superior wisdom, who are obvious cheats, hypocrites, self-promoters or underminers of group cohesion will always get their comeuppance from the wider public.

In essence this is what happened at the September election. Labor's downfall was based on a growing elitism within the party, the promotion of an in-group over consideration for their wider support base, a self-focus seen as undermining the wider public good. Factionalism had descended into primitive tribalism and disunity driven by self-promoters whose cheating and hypocrisy was obvious to all. No matter what protestations of good intentions and good policy about disability or schools funding, division was seen as incompetence, hypocrisy and self-interest. In that sense the Labor cause was lost in much the same way as Islam is riven by rival Shia, Sunni and extreme Islamist interpretations of doctrine. The core religion was lost sight of in the pursuit of factional and individual power.

In contrast, Tony Abbott and the Coalition managed to hide or suppress their innate inner divisions to present a united front and play on widely shared fears (of economic mismanagement, illicit refugees, chaotic leadership and special interest favors) which united the nation (at least a majority of the voters) against Labor. Punishment was meted out by the electors to those who failed to cooperate in the interests of the common good.


The task facing the Coalition now is of course to fulfil the promise of unity, to prove they are working for the common good, and for Labor to find again that sense of common purpose and altruism the public might once again support. The new Government would do well to remember that those modern societies that do best in terms of quality of life and collective self-esteem are those that have the lowest income-differential between the wealthiest and poorest citizens, where what is called 'authentic altruism' unites people through our biological instinct for the common good of the tribe, a sense of honor born of innate empathy and cooperativeness. Labor must revamp the notion of the tribe it serves to include every citizen, not just those few apparatchiks promoted from within its narrowing ranks.

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About the Author

Dr Don Edgar was founding Director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies and is a member of the Victorian Children’s Council. His latest book, co-authored with Dr Patricia Edgar, is The New Child: in search of smarter grown-ups. See

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