The vision thing

Jacqueline Woodman says you can’t stop a flood
or eliminate greed, but you can challenge indifference … Andrew Leigh
thinks invigorating the Australian project today means expanding the political
agenda … and Wendy McCarthy reminds us of our common humanity

For more commentary on the election campaign, and what its style
and content may be saying about Australian priorities, see these articles
published in

Andrew Parker says the medium has become the message … and
so does Sally Young (in terms of words and pictures).

… and Greg Barns looks at some
forgotten Australians who really test our humanity.

For all’s published election commmentary, see our archive.

The global price of our
golden eggs – Jacqueline Woodman

Sitting down to the Sydney Morning Herald on
Monday, I nearly choked on my coffee when I read about the up and coming
designer egg industry.

At an international egg congress in Sydney, ‘David
Hughes, professor of food marketing at Imperial College London, said British
supermarkets now sold gourmet Columbian Blacktail hen eggs at three times the
price of their plain cousins’, the SMH reported. I learnt that ‘blue- and
turquoise-coloured eggs from Patagonian birds’ were also selling in Britain, and
that exotic eggs on Australian restaurant menus now include those from Chilean
Araucana and Dutch Barnevelder chickens.

Why? ‘As breakfast became a
special occasion reserved for the weekend, ‘you might not want boring eggs, but
a Columbian Blacktail hen egg’ to impress friends’, Professor David reportedly
said. Eggs to impress is certainly a new one to me.

I shouldn’t still be
surprised by things like this, but I was. Surprised and appalled. The article
mentioned that ‘rising affluence across the Western world had dramatically
altered food buying habits’. But beyond that, it had nothing to say about the
context or consequences of our designer poultry. Meaning – while we trade in
golden eggs, what is the rest of the world eating?

It isn’t human
suffering so much as human indifference to human suffering which is outrageous.
You can’t stop a flood or eliminate greed, but you can challenge indifference.

In the lead up to the federal election, we mock the hamburger and
milkshake analogies, but we are scared to stray too far from policies designed
to bribe us with yet another bite at the conspicuous consumption cherry. An
extra five dollars a week is not a lot we know, but it certainly adds up. Five
dollars can buy two cans of coke. Several litres actually, but then we would
have to pour it into a glass before consuming – the disposable can is so much

As individuals it can hardly be considered a crime to aspire to
a couple of extra cans of coke a week – or even splurge on the occasional
Columbian Blacktail hen egg. But as a society, the opportunity costs of our
collective choices along these lines are staggering. The burden of our choices
weighs heavily on those who least deserve to carry them.

This year alone
approximately 12 million children under the age of five will die from poverty
related illnesses. That’s a million pre-school children a month, dying from
preventable illnesses. Preventable poverty. Currently, 1.8 billion people live
in ‘absolute poverty’.

So what? We’ve heard it all before. Yet it’s so
easy to forget the individual agonies that make up global poverty, and that they
are perpetuated by an economic system which our choices help define. That system
is designed to create and feed our insatiable hunger for things we don’t need,
and didn’t even know we wanted until advertisers told us so. Designer eggs, did
you know you wanted the shells to be blue and purple before you peeled them off
and threw them away?

‘But what can I do?’ is the common rhetorical
response. As if in asking the question one has been absolved of responsibility.
But this is an insufficient and inhumane response. Preventable hunger and the
needless suffering of children is an outrage. So is the coexistence of gluttony
and excess with hunger and need.

Multilateral investment agreements, free
trade agreements and so on do make the news. But the debate does not explore the
real impact of these measures on our own lives – let alone the impact on the
lives of people on the other side of the world. The irony of free trade is that
it isn’t free at all. It is biased, lopsided, unfair. OECD countries subsidise
their own agricultural industries by several hundred billion US dollars
annually, massively distorting their share of income from global trade in
primary products. During the 1980s, OECD countries increased their share of the
global income pool by seventy billion each year, and developing countries’ share
of income fell by the same amount. OECD subsidisation means the rich got seventy
billion more; the poor got seventy billion less.

We are repeatedly told
to trust ‘the market’. Government and its policies must not interfere with ‘the
market’. Corporate regulation and delivery of services (and designer eggs, it
seems) is best left to ‘the market’. I am not trying to demonise ‘the market’ or
productive enterprise, rather to point to the need to promote their sane and
humane application. ‘The market’ can only deliver up to a point. We need a
strong and active civil society, where we reflect on our own choices and demand
accountability from decisionmakers, both in business and government.

choice is not – as we are so often led to believe, in the caricatured
reductionism which passes for political debate – between unrestricted trade
growth on the one hand, and inefficient centralised government control on the
other. Market economics with strong, enforceable regulation can lead to grown
and prosperity: shaped by society, for the benefit of society.

Society is
now expected to serve the economy, where the economy should served us. We must
challenge the cliche and rhetoric which have replaced open debate about what
matters. It is not just a strong economy we seek but a strong society. One where
we know and care about the opportunity costs, and consequences of 18 million
individuals (that’s us) each being handed two extra cans of coke, or a milkshake
and a burger.

And those damned eggs. Possibly the most telling line in
that Sydney Morning Herald article was this:
‘Farmers needed to
realise they could no longer just sell eggs but had to ‘design

Indeed. When society ceases to have an economy and
starts to be an economy, this is a society that has lost its senses.

Jacqueline Woodman is the Executive Director of the Whitlam Institute. Prior to
this she was the Director of the European Network on Debt and Development,
Europe’s leading peak body of non-governmental organisations committed to fair
and just international debt and poverty reduction policies. Jacqueline has also
held senior executive positions the World Development Movement in London and
CARE Australia. She has worked as a consultant for a number of European
governments and for the World Bank on Public Private Partnerships, on the
provision of essential services for disadvantaged communities.

Where have all the
optimists gone? – Andrew Leigh

Does the scope of the current election campaign really
span the gamut of what matters for the future of our nation? Is there nothing
more to the once great Australian project than Medicare reform, tax breaks for
the middle class, payments for mature aged workers, and reallocation of private
school funding?

Australia is bigger than many of the current debates
taking place in the political arena. In our recently released book, Imagining
Australia: Ideas for Our Future
, Macgregor Duncan, David Madden, Peter Tynan
and I argue that reinvigorating the Australian project today means expanding the
political agenda: tackling new challenges that affect more than the hip pocket

The first challenge is to renew Australia’s national identity, an
issue untouched in the current election campaign. While the ANZAC story has come
to serve as a surrogate national legend, it cannot speak to our democratic
traditions, maturity, or self-confidence. If Gallipoli represents our biblical
Exodus, we are still searching for our Genesis.

One way of renewing our
national identity would be to claim the story of the Eureka uprising as our
central national legend. A movement against oppressive taxation and arbitrary
colonial rule, the Eureka miners fought for justice against an unjust regime. In
this sense, Eureka is Australia’s equivalent of the Boston Tea Party. Described
by Sir Robert Menzies as ‘an earnest attempt at democratic governance’, Ballarat
marks the spiritual birthplace of Australian democracy. December 3 this year
will be the 150th anniversary of Eureka. What better moment to revive a legend
that speaks to our core values: democracy, egalitarianism, mateship and

The second challenge is to achieve a lasting
reconciliation with the nation’s original inhabitants. Perhaps the toughest
problem facing Australia today, achieving reconciliation has eluded political
leaders for a generation. In the current campaign, Labor has committed itself to
reconciliation, but has said little about how it might be achieved, while the
Coalition’s indigenous policy spends more time attacking Labor than discussing
new ways of advancing reconciliation.

To succeed, reconciliation should
be made more celebratory, improving understanding of indigenous stories and
languages, rather than focusing exclusively on past injustices. Simple symbolic
changes can help too. We ought to celebrate the handing down of the Mabo
judgment as a national holiday, assign dual names to capital cities as the New
Zealanders do (Melbourne might be known also as Narloke or Narrm), and pursue a
treaty between indigenous and non-indigenous Australia.

The third
challenge is to begin a real debate about inequality. During the 1990s, average
incomes rose rapidly, boosting living standards for most Australians. But the
fraction of income going to the richest one per cent rose too – from six and a
half to nine per cent. Will the widening gulf between rich and poor in Australia
ultimately strain our social fabric?

Rather than ignoring inequality, or
pretending that it does not matter, it is time for Australian politicians to
engage in an open and honest discussion about how much inequality we wish to
bear. Then, if we decide as a society to devote a larger share of our national
pie towards the poorest, we must engage in what Franklin D. Roosevelt once
called ‘bold, persistent experimentation’, testing antipoverty programs in
randomised trials just as we test new pharmaceuticals. Put to the test, many of
the programs favoured by both sides of politics might well be found to be
ineffective, and have to be abandoned. This would be a good thing. What matters
most is not whether antipoverty programs accord with the ideological flavour of
the day, but whether they actually deliver results.

The fourth and final
challenge is to commit Australia to become the exemplary international citizen,
using our middle-power status and our strong international standing to find
solutions to some of the world’s most intractable problems. This means going
beyond the issues of Iraq and terrorism that dominate today’s agenda. Australia
should revive the Canberra Commission on nuclear weapons, broadening its mandate
to take in the global trade in guns and other small arms. We should draw on our
experience in East Timor to create a new strategic recovery facility,
coordinating experts and money in the wake of tragedies like Rwanda, the Balkans
and Darfur. And we ought to also use our middle-power status to replace the
Kyoto Treaty on global warming with a better alternative; one that might win
agreement across the developed world.

National identity, reconciliation,
inequality, and international citizenship tend to have one thing in common: they
require a leader who will ask the Australian people to focus on a goal larger
than self-interest. This requires no more and no less than the rebirth of the
great Australian project – born of altruism and reared on optimism. As
Victoria’s greatest son, Alfred Deakin, told the second constitutional
convention: ‘There is no process of accretion by which a weak political body
becomes a strong body … You will find that you cannot creep the chasm; you
must leap it’.

A century on, can Deakin’s vision and passion inspire us

Dr Andrew Leigh is an economist at the Australian
National University. He has worked as a lawyer and political adviser in both
Britain and Australia and is a former research fellow with the Progressive
Policy Institute, a Washington DC thinktank. Andrew is co-author of Imagining
Australia: Ideas for Our Future
(Allen & Unwin, 2004).

This is
an edited version of a public lecture Andrew delivered at the State Library of
Victoria on 21 September 2004.

Our common humanity –
Wendy McCarthy

Those of us who know our world is larger than Australia
might wonder why we have not heard a word about aid in the election campaign.
Encouraged as we are to think globally and in terms of trade, I want to hear
what is on offer for people globally – and especially women and children, whose
lives are so affected by globalization.

As a director of Plan
International – an international aid agency dedicated to working with poor
children, and active in 60 countries around the world – I am in the fortunate
position of being able to make some small contribution to the world’s seeming
inability to hear the voices of the poor. Worldwide, women and children make up
75 percent of those living in poverty, defined by the World Bank as meaning they
have an income of less than one dollar a day.

People say that charity
begins at home, that we should tackle the problem of poverty here before we look
abroad. I am getting tired of hearing this. Does that mean that the life of a
person from a different race or nation is of less account than someone from our
own? Should that person have lesser rights?

Currently we might conclude
this is the case. The Australian government, like its role model in the US,
demands that overseas agencies such as Plan not undertake any family planning
activities, unless the organization is accredited by AUSAID to do so. This is
hardly a holistic approach to health or life. As importantly, it effectively
denies women in other countries basic rights that Australian women

Dare we ask why?

The issue of foreign aid and world poverty
are matters about which all in the developed world should be concerned. Citizens
in the US should be particularly troubled, for that wealthy nation ranks last in
terms of providing development aid, measured as a proportion of its gross
national product (GNP).

Together with another 189 countries, Australia
and the US are signatories to the Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s). The
goals are to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, achieve universal primary
education, promote gender equality and empower women, improve maternal health,
reduce child mortality, combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, ensure
environmental sustainability and develop a global partnership for development.
Even a less feminised reader of this list would concede that it is the lives of
women and children who are most at risk if these goals are not

Recently the Treasurer, Peter Costello, speaking at a meeting of
Australian Council for International Development said:

‘Despite plans to
the contrary by some, the evidence shows that we are well on the way to meeting
the MDG targets although progress towards the goal is uneven.’

concluded: ‘There is a growing consensus that development cannot happen unless
countries can establish progress in areas of governance, law and order and
economic management. Australia is doing its utmost to help in these

But will trade and security do it?

Leaders in the aid and
development community do not deny the power of trade and economic reform in
addressing poverty. They do question, however, the narrowness of this
prescription, particularly for the poorest countries in Africa. Such countries
are denied access to trade their way out of problems by the massive trade
barriers erected by the US and EU. It seems hypocritical to preach trade as a
solution while at the same time blocking imports.

The Treasurer’s
rhetoric is not matched by any real action. We are falling far short of the aid
needed to achieve these goals. In terms of overseas development assistance
Australia ranked fourteenth out of 22 OECD countries in 2003, and by 2006 we are
likely to rank twentieth, racing to joining the USA at the bottom. Currently we
spend more on pet food than overseas aid.

The truth is aid works, and is
a powerful adjunct to trade and economic reform in bringing about broad based
improvement. Trade and economic reform messages should not be used to justify
meagre aid levels. As World Bank President James Wolfensohn said recently: ‘You
cannot take your eye off the ball of poverty’.

Aid is especially
important for women and children, yet there was no mention in the Treasurer’s
speech of programs to promote gender equality and empower women.

It seems
we have a leadership deficit. We need to build relationships across cultural and
geographic borders, to ensure that globalisation can benefit everyone. That
means listening to the voices and stories of women and children who are so
central to the development process.

Could some political leader think of
one world, and our common humanity? I will vote for her.

McCarthy AO
is Chancellor of the University of Canberra, Chair of PLAN,
Chair of McGrath Estate Agents, Chair of the New South Wales Ministerial Health
Participation Council, and Deputy Chair of the Sydney Community Foundation. She
has held senior leadership roles in many of Australia’s leading public and
private institutions, including the Australian Federation of Family Planning
Associations, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the Australian
Bicentennial Authority, the National Better Health Program, the National Trust,
the Australian Heritage Commission and Symphony Australia. She is the founder of
corporate advisory practice McCarthy Management and of Corporate Good Works.
Wendy has written five books and is a regular media commentator.

article is based on Wendy’s forthcoming Sir Walter Murdoch public lecture – ‘A
passionate journey: from grass roots activism to international governance’ – to
be delivered at Murdoch University, Western Australia, on Thursday 30 September
2004 at 7:30 pm.

Archive: Did You

Graduate Certificate in Health Policy

Infant Mortality

Mental health in Australia

Mental health in Australia

Tobacco in China

Attempts by the Commonwealth to take-over public hospitals from
the States

Voter attitudes to health at election time

Demand for hospital treatment in Australia

IVF in

Lifting birthweights

Wealth and Health

Medical Technology


Dental health care

Private health


Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.