Wake the Slumbering Spirit


Since the Howard Government was elected, Australians have been hitting the snooze button each Federal election dozing through another three years of a somnific regime, relaxed and comfortable, our bellies full.

One of the reasons we keep snoozing is because the ALP has become as yawn-worthy as the Coalition. We hear a lot of minutiae, but no rousing, passionate vision of what Australian society should be. We hear a lot of what should be done but nothing about why it should be done. Nothing about the fundamental principles or values underlying the policies.

At some point, Labor became afraid to talk about values, partly because the neo-cons had co-opted the term with talk of ‘family’ or ‘traditional’ values which included some but excluded many more. For instance, ‘family,’ in popular political parlance, excludes two men with a cocker spaniel. And ‘traditional’ means Dad the Breadwinner and Mum the Baker of Scones.

This worldview excludes just about everybody else, but appeals to those embittered or nervous about change. David Marr said of the issue:

Support for the Christian idea of family no poofs, no drugs, no divorce, no grown up video games, no Lesbian mothers is the great consolation prize offered to real families whose futures have been made, if not marginal then, uncertain by the free market revolution of the last 15 years.

So, no surprise that Labor is loathe to mention values, fearing a word that now comes with coded implications of social conservatism, anti-feminism and dog-whistling. But the irony is that, despite being unacknowledged, values actually underlie everything Labor aims to do. And a lack of articulation of these values apart from a brief, bright moment before Mark Latham self-combusted in 2004 is responsible for many of Labor’s election woes.

Thanks to Luke Henning

The ALP’s Party Platform says:

6. Fairness

Labor believes that all people are created equal in their entitlement to dignity and respect, and should have an equal chance to achieve their potential.

For Labor, government has a critical role in ensuring fairness by:

    • ensuring equal opportunity;
    • removing unjustifiable discrimination; and
    • achieving a more equitable distribution of wealth, income and status.

The Liberal Party Platform also mentions fairness. Liberals are committed to:

Building a taxation system which enhances fairness and incentives to work and save, provides sound finance for government services, boosts business investment and exports, promotes simplicity and consistency and is internationally competitive

For the Liberals, ‘fairness’ is all about tax. There’s a passing reference to being committed to Australia’s ‘ egalitarian sense of fairness,’ but unlike Labor, the Liberals don’t specify how governments can help achieve fairness, and their Platform doesn’t mention equal opportunity not once.

Isn’t fairness the kind of value relevant to a debate about education? Shouldn’t Labor be talking about equal opportunity, and how to make our education system fairer? Shouldn’t Labor be saying that opportunity should not depend on how much someone’s parents can afford to pay?

Instead, the soundbites we hear are all about the minutiae. Here’s Shadow Minister for Education, Stephen Smith:

We see overnight 10,000 students in New South Wales missing out on the first round of applications to University. This takes us to about 40,000 young Australians this year: 10,000 in New South Wales and the ACT, 20,000 in Victoria, 5000 in Queensland, 6000 in Adelaide.

Eyes glaze over and we shuffle back to bed or the banana lounge.

Labor needs to tell the electorate why upfront fees should be rolled back, and it needs to do so by articulating the principles of fairness and equal opportunity. In this context, Labor’s values are actually its biggest advantage.

Australians want values. That’s why people are increasingly sending their children to private schools where they’ll be taught ‘values.’ As one person wrote in 2004 in an ABC Online forum:

I have elected to send my only daughter to a private school which endorses ‘Christian Values’ without being specifically affiliated with any Christian sect. The school accepts children of any, or no, religious affiliation, providing they accept the values which will be encouraged at the school. These values are clearly referred to in the prospectus as ‘Humility, Service Love and Respect.’

And public schools are responding with information for parents on the values they teach like adopting a ‘value of the month‘ or participating in the Federal Government’s Values in Education program showcasing such values as ‘Attributes of an Aussie .’

These days Kevin Rudd dedicates himself to being a fiscal conservative but the ALP needs to tell people that fairness is not just about the tax system he has to speak to our better selves, not just our hip pockets.

In his new book, Weighing Up Australian Values, former Deputy Prime Minister Brian Howe illustrates how shifting values have created a ‘growing disjunction’ over the past two decades between social policies and evolving needs. As a multiracial ‘transition society,’ Australia ‘necessarily struggles with questions of national identity and values,’ he writes. ‘These pressures have introduced a sense of uncertainty and a stronger sense of Australia as a society in transition, a risk society.’

The result? We have governments focusing on penny-pinching rather than finding ways of investing in people through education and training. Useless ‘welfare to work’ programs keep the unemployed ‘busy’ a poor substitute for training that could invest Australians with new, relevant skills.

All this is fertile ground for Labor to plough, and fits with a vision of a fair society where everyone has the chance to contribute.

Long after retiring from politics, Paul Keating wrote that:

People cannot have the wealth and the jobs while at the same time laying waste to the human spirit. The beating heart of the country has to be kept in good fettle.

Kevin Rudd and the Labor Party need to take Keating and Howe’s advice and wake the human spirit of Australians, which has been blissfully slum
bering through the bland Howard years.

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