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New values desperately needed

By Greg Barns - posted Thursday, 15 November 2001

This election campaign has been about dividing the economic and social winners from the economic and social losers. The former, who populate well-heeled suburbs and live in mainly conservative electorates, are being shunned by the Coalition, and to some extent Labor, as both parties battle for the regional and outer-suburban marginal seats in a bid to win the election. The fires of economic and social resentment have been well and truly stoked over the past five weeks.

Even the language used to characterise the two groups, "elites" and "battlers", is designed to evoke sympathy for one and contempt for the other. John Howard, in particular, despises the elites and one of his journalistic barrackers, Paul Sheehan, wrote an article in The Sydney Morning Herald last week, accusing the elites of belonging to a "republic of bile". By this he means the elites' condemnation of the Australian people and Howard for the rejection of issues such as the republic, reconciliation and a strong focus on Asia.

It is time those in the elites' camp - CEOs, senior bureaucrats, artists, educators and professionals - stood up for what they believe in and helped eliminate the undesirable gulf that some of our political leaders and media have created. In other words, for the values of an outward-looking Australia, at peace with its past and with symbols appropriate for its status in the Asian region, for tolerance and economic liberalisation that eliminates privilege and creates new wealth opportunities.


No better reason as to why "elites bashing" is a very shortsighted step for Australia was provided this week by social scientist Peter Drucker in a survey for The Economist. Drucker notes that the next half-century will be characterised by borderlessness, and a "knowledge economy" which will be highly competitive.

The challenge for government will be to ensure a radical re-think of the way in which we disperse new technologies into our community, educate people and to ensure that we have population growth to ensure that we increase domestic demand and exports so that we can afford the welfare bill that will result as a consequence of increased competition and because 30 percent of our population will be over 60 years of age.

This scenario for Australia will mean that our political leaders will have to steer our nation in new directions that are bold and reformist. Giving comfort to those who hanker after a mythical relaxed and comfortable life is not an option. The Labor Party and National Party will have to get over their obsession with winding back National Competition Policy and tariff removal slow-downs - the South Australian car industry is a perfect example.

Every time politicians pander to Mitsubishi's latest bullying for more money they give in because of their fear that to do otherwise will be to risk a major electoral backlash. Meanwhile, who is addressing what South Australia needs in economic and social terms in the 'knowledge society' that Professor Drucker outlines?

We need leaders who can engage and communicate with the sceptics as to why Australia should be a republic and reconciliation is important if we want a society that our children will want to nurture - because both these initiatives represent social pride and social cohesion.

Before I am accused of paternalism and arrogance let me make one thing clear - each and every member of our community must have his or her unique self-worth affirmed by the political process. A liberal democracy gives recognition to that uniqueness through the right of every citizen over the age of 18 to vote. But it is important that that vote is informed. Not simply by sloganeering that appeals to the voters' self-interest, but as a result of ongoing sharing of ideas and values between those at the top of the income and social ladder and those near the bottom.


There is no doubt that there is a gulf between the values and views of those who are the economic and social elite and those who are struggling to pay their way and who may not be as well-educated. But instead of widening that gap so that it becomes a tinderbox waiting to be lit, our politicians and opinion leaders must encourage a dialogue on the values and experiences that unite us. In this way we will create a more understanding and wealthier society.

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This article was first published in The Australian Financial Review on November 7, 2001.

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Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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