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The best things in life may be free but they come at a cost, apparently

By Peter Lewis - posted Thursday, 18 September 2003

At its heart, political debate has always been a struggle between competing views about how a society should organise itself to maximise the benefits for the majority of its citizens.

The story of political debate over the past 100 years has been a recurring contest of competing ideologies: the free market versus socialism, the state versus the individual and religious fundamentalism versus secularism.

In practical terms, these debates have all been about applying an
over-arching worldview into a set of laws to govern a society, with citizens of that society viewed very much as the passive consumers of the system.


With the triumph of market-based democracies, citizens do get the opportunity to vote for their preferred provider of legislative services but as political parties have converged this choice, has become more one of style and nuance than of fundamental difference.

In the past two decades the faultlines in Australia have further blurred, with two parties with different traditions (social democracy and liberalism) competing on their credentials as economic managers and service deliverers.

It is hardly surprising that for the majority of people squeezed into their roles as economic units in the market of life, that politics means less to them than ever before. They just don't have the time.

What has been missing in the political debate is an engagement with the lives of the people the system is meant to service, in particularly the crisis in people's ability to maintain relationships in a global world.

We talk about Medicare as an abstract, Telstra as a business, education as an aspiration. Yet we don't strip back the debates and look at how political and business decisions affect the lives of individuals.

The experience of modern Australia is that while all the economic indicators say things have never been better, the people who are meant to benefit are over-worked, stressed and increasingly alone.


These are the crucial issues that Federal Labor frontbencher Lindsay Tanner grapples with in his new book, Crowded Lives, launched this week.

It's an ambitious and courageous work, not because it has a big-picture solution but rather the opposite: it calls for a new view of citizens, that sees them as members of a group, not just a subject or a consumer.

It is based on the notion that the best things in life are not things - but intangibles like friendship, time with families, community participation.

According to Tanner the first step is for government to view the impact of their decisions on the relationships between people at all different levels as a threshold. From there good policy must inevitably flow.

If the time has come to construct a new politics that links the state and individuals by focussing on the state's role in building and maintaining relationships, then Tanner's contribution could be an important building block.

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This article was first published as the editorial in Workers Online, published by Labornet, which is a member of The National Forum.

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About the Author

Peter Lewis is the director of Essential Media Communications, a company that runs strategic campaigns for unions, environmental groups and other “progressive” organisations.

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