When Values Are a Joke


Earlier this year I ran a Federally funded and mandated ‘Values Forum’ in a public high school in the Sydney seat of Lindsay. The school is in the hottest part of Sydney, was built in the 1960s and, apart from the library, is not air-conditioned. Such is the ‘value’ we place on those public school students and their life chances that they swelter through every summer. Oh well, I guess those students with parents who can afford it can always ‘choose’ to be sent to the air-conditioned, publicly subsidised private school down the road.

As part of its battle to improve the values in our schools (or ‘standards’ as Janette Howard apparently liked to call them) the recently departed Howard Government used to dispatch a cheap little poster featuring Simpson and his donkey and the ‘Nine Values for Australian Schooling.’ Appropriately enough, given the oddly Maoist flavour of this little push into re-education and right thinking, the poster was part of a grab bag of instructions that had to be strictly obeyed on pain of losing funding. (No doubt, the school also risked being visited by the Red Guard.)

One such strict instruction was that the Simpson poster had to be hung in a prominent place, another was that the school had to run a forum on the ‘Nine Values’ (although I counted 13).

As it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good, I got the gig to facilitate the forum at the school in Lindsay and got paid the few hundred dollars the Government generously allocated to finance my efforts (honestly, the school would have preferred the air-con).

About half an hour into the process, the parents, teachers and students were deep in a discussion about ‘Care and Compassion,’ ‘Doing your Best,’ ‘Fair Go,’ ‘Freedom’ (as long as you do what the Federal Govt tells you), ‘Honesty and Trustworthiness,’ ‘Integrity,’ ‘Respect,’ ‘Responsibility’ and ‘Understanding, Tolerance and Inclusion,’ when the then-Federal member for Lindsay arrived. The Honourable Jackie Kelly rushed in, apologising for her lateness, and immediately became an active participant. Her contributions were more well-meaning than profound, but were accepted by the parents, students and staff with admirable Tolerance, Inclusion and “ if not quite Respect “ at least Understanding.

I thought nothing more of it until the infamous phoney pamphlet surfaced in Lindsay just before the recent Federal election and Kelly attempted to minimise its impact by claiming it was a ‘Chaser style stunt.’ Her explanation did make me laugh out loud. But I wasn’t having a ‘chuckle’ (as she recommended) at the supposed humour of vilifying Muslims while trying to mislead and frighten voters about the ALP. No, as I thought back to her performance at the public school earlier this year, I was laughing at the gobsmacking hypocrisy of such a government, as represented by this ex-Minister, daring to lecture anyone on Honesty, Integrity, Respect, Tolerance, Responsibility or Understanding.

It isn’t enough to preach values if you want to teach them to young people, you actually have to practise them. And, from my perspective at least, the Howard Government had less right to go around pontificating about values or standards than most particularly to students in an underfunded, shamelessly neglected, hot as Hades, public school.

(My approach to the forum, I hasten to add, was to look at what gets in the way of us living up to our values. I guess I hadn’t considered the fear of losing an election as just such an obstacle.)

As Carrie Miller has pointed out in her analysis of the Caroline Overington/Geoff Newhouse contretemps, there has been a bit of a run on the ‘only joking’ defence recently. It’s one way to avoid taking Responsibility for your actions, I suppose.

John Howard tied himself up in knots as he tried to argue he was sorry for people’s pain at the rise in interest rates but not sorry because he was responsible for it. Trouble is, he’d already completely denied the validity of that argument when he refused to say sorry to Indigenous people for their past sufferings. A lack of Integrity there, perhaps?

And inventing the categories of ‘core’ and ‘non-core promises’ is not very Honest or Trustworthy, is it? Nor is making sure you are not told vital but potentially compromising bits of information. And how much Integrity is there in declaring war on a country while simultaneously breaking UN sanctions to sell it wheat? And what kind of Fair Go was being exercised when John Howard distanced Jackie Kelly and Karen Chijoff from their husbands, but didn’t allow Dr Haneef the same space from his second cousin?

It’s always sensible to avoid preaching about morality and values (I believe it’s called Humility). All of us fall short of our values most of the time, and that’s acceptable as long as you don’t go round self-righteously pointing the finger at others telling them how to live.

There appear to be people, many of them powerful and successful, who believe values only need to be taught to the great unwashed. As if values are a kind of control mechanism, only really applicable to the lower classes. Many of them can preach values fluently, but when you look at their actions, they appear to have no understanding or interest in what the words they spout really mean.

Back at the un-air-conditioned public school in Lindsay, the Deputy Principal had done everything she’d been instructed to do she’d run her Values forum and displayed her Values poster in a prominent place. But there was a twist. No sooner had she hung the poster on its nail than she turned Simpson and his donkey to the wall.

Never mind, if anyone ever calls her to account, she can always claim that she was ‘only joking.’

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.