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What do we value

By Bill Calcutt - posted Thursday, 27 March 2014

For some time social commentators have reported growing levels of community disenchantment with the standards and behaviour of Australian political leaders, with suggestions of a decline in the Government's moral authority. Of particular concern to many Australians across the political spectrum are the harsh and authoritarian national policies towards asylum-seekers in the name of deterrence, leading to apparently cruel and inhumane (and increasingly secret) action against people seeking asylum by boat. This article asks why such inexplicable and reactionary public policies have been adopted by a progressive and wealthy multicultural nation that has traditionally prided itself on its tolerance, generosity and principled international leadership.

Throughout the ages moral leadership has been reflected in the courageous defence of the intrinsic values that represent the ideal characteristics of a civilised human society. These intrinsic values include honesty, compassion, respect, humanity, dignity, humility, equity, altruism and consideration. In the past the community has expected its political leaders to embody and defend moral leadership in the face of short-term expediency, populism and cynicism. The state was required to mediate and balance competing social, economic and environmental interests while supporting the weak and disadvantaged.

Contemporary human history reflects the great ideological clash between individual self-interest and broader community welfare, and between social and economic forces. The West's capitalism is founded on a centuries-old conviction (classical liberalism) that individual enterprise is a fundamental human drive that facilitates innovation, growth and the creation of wealth. The principle of individual entitlement to acquire and own private property is embodied in Article 17 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights that asserts that "everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others" and "no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property".


Neo-liberalism, a more fundamentalist variation of classical liberal ideology that advocates a ubiquitous free-market society with minimum state intervention, has been in the ascendance in Western democracies since the 1980s (coinciding with the phenomenon of technology-enable globalisation). In a highly competitive and utilitarian free-market many social interactions can be treated as transactions and traded as commodities according to their nominal monetary worth. In such a rapidly changing environment the community's expectations of its political leaders have progressively shifted to the demonstration of strength, decisiveness and economic competence. Technology and a twenty four hour media cycle have placed huge pressures on political leaders to be agile and responsive to confected short-term crises, with limited opportunity for thoughtful consideration of longer-term strategy or complex matters of principle.

In a market-based society many intrinsic values that are inherently difficult to monetise are denigrated by economic rationalists as quaint, amorphous and irrelevant anachronisms. Given the overwhelming power of economic forces in a market (and increasingly, global) society the defence of these intrinsic human values has been left to religions and the cultural and legal institutions entrusted to define and preserve higher human principles (typically historical instruments like declarations, constitutions and charters).

Australia is unique amongst developed countries in the virtual absence of cultural and legal institutions that articulate our society's intrinsic values and delineate the delicate and complex balance between individual rights, community standards and state authority. Then Prime Minister John Howard famously celebrated the absence of formalised measures of "Australianness" in a speech on Australia Day in 2006, arguing against the need to stipulate and encapsulate national values in a Bill of Rights and inferring these values were best mediated through political rather than legal processes.

Perhaps it is this national normlessness, in particular the absence of a Bill of Rights defining the decent, humane, responsible and respectful treatment of individuals, that partly explains the nation's willingness to officially sanction cruel and inhumane action against vulnerable and powerless asylum-seekers, apparently oblivious to the minimum, universal and inalienable rights of all humans. A national Bill of Rights would transparently define the delicate balance between civil liberties and state powers, constraining a Government that wanted to invoke national security (border protection) to covertly deploy paramilitary resources against a law enforcement and humanitarian challenge.

Perhaps it is also this same normlessness that spawns growing intolerance of the many thousands of citizens who struggle to compete in a Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest economy because they are old/sick/disabled/vulnerable/poor, or the community's lack of gratitude towards those willing to selflessly dedicate their lives to the welfare of the disadvantaged. Finally, there may be another more enduring consequence of a diminished (value-less) national identity. Social commentators have noted an apparently growing level of narcissism within sections of the Australian community, reflected in a decline in altruistic social participation and increased selfishness and greed. This may be an inevitable consequence of the absence of explicit national standards and the failure of leaders to model and champion intrinsic values.

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About the Author

Bill Calcutt worked in a range of intelligence roles in the Australian Security Intelligence Organization and the National Crime Authority from the early 1970s till the mid 1990s.

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