Moral Courage and the AWB

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By the time the Commonwealth Games finish, we can be sure that our ears will have been belted hard with the words courage, hero and legend. Successful athletes will wear this triple crown, but others will also be marked out for hyperbolic praise.


Thanks to Fiona Katauskas.

In part, this reflects a contemporary degradation in the way we use language. Popular culture demands that we yell to be heard. As a result, our spoken English is characterised by statements of the unqualified extreme; small and meaningful distinctions have been lost.

Yet popular culture reflects what is real for us too. We pride ourselves on what we think is the unique Australian ethos of physical courage. After all, we are sons and daughter of Anzacs proud Australian heroes and so are all capable of acting heroically if occasion demands it. We demand outstanding achievement on the football or cricket oval, running track and tennis court, and we think such accomplishment to be the very mark of courage.

Of course, in the face of extreme danger or when competing under extreme pressure, men and women, soldiers and civilians, perform extraordinary and commendable acts of physical courage.

But physical courage is the ‘easy’ kind of courage. It is easy because it is sanctioned and approved and expected; and because it is easy, it exists as a lesser brand.

There is another type of courage, which requires the individual to stand apart from the crowd and take responsibility for his or her actions, irrespective of the personal consequences. This kind of courage emanates from an individual sense of what is right, and remains unaffected by the praise or abuse heaped by crowds. For this reason, acts of moral courage are much greater and much rarer than mere feats of physical bravery.

If we listen to what has been said at the AWB bribery inquiry, we might believe that Australian grain producers are now in serious trouble solely because of a flawed culture a culture where questions were not asked so that answers could never be heard.

Yet a culture does not live in isolation. It is created only by the work of a multitude of individuals. As individuals acquiesce in practices that are unconscionable, then so does a culture of ‘unconscience’ grow.

The reason for systemic failure is personal and individual and it goes to the desire that swells in most of us to get on and to do well by our peers and colleagues and to not rock the boat. The result is, as an AWB executive put it: ‘if there were grey areas, it was perhaps left grey.’

To take a stand and to insist that grey be made white demands courage and sacrifice both. It means accepting and acting on ethical responsibilities, which are held to transcend, say, an AWB imperative to maximise opportunities for business.

Recently, Australia’s top bureaucrat, Dr Peter Shergold, spoke about the ideals and practice of the Public Service. According to him, the failings of the Australian public Service in children overboard, in Rau, in Solon were of ‘inadequate managerial control, weak direction and poor organisational communication’ that was exacerbated by a tardiness in correcting mistakes.

Certainly, it is true that smooth running systems and the absence of ‘organisational silos’ are necessary if governments are not to wreak havoc on citizens. Yet it is not enough. And because of this, it is an analysis that is self-serving and disingenuously incomplete.

Dr Shergold leaves us believing that no breathing person was ever engaged in creating this ‘ inadequate,’ ‘weak’ and ‘poor’ culture. In his world no moral considerations were ever swept under the carpet. Accordingly, public servants are only ever required to make systemic improvements to polish managerial levers until, to the external observer, they are made smooth-working and shining bright. In this model, once the system is efficient and tight, the role of individual conscience has no legitimate place.

The experience with mandatory detention, with the wheat sellers of the AWB, and with the imprisonment of David Hicks reveals this approach to be wholly wrong. To take just one as an example, we are being asked to believe that the practice of locking children up was morally inoffensive because the Executive said so and because the electric fences at Baxter were in efficient working order.

The demand that we be morally courageous makes a simple and difficult claim on each one of us if the machine is efficient but wrong, then our concern must be to see it made right.

If this means resigning from an organization, or standing down, or selling less wheat, or releasing David Hicks, or not locking children up in the future, then these are costs we should be pleased to pay.

This should be the kind of courage that Australians have the courage to applaud.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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