Ebola And The Australian Cult Of Selfishness


Prime Minister Tony Abbott has labelled ISIS a death cult. In terms of ISIS fighters’ indifference to human life, his observation is apt.

But the Prime Minister should condemn another cult – of selfishness. Instead he encourages it.

The most recent example of this cult concerns the Australian Government’s response to the Ebola epidemic. We will help if there is no risk to our personnel. We will make a response when the disease comes to our region. We will give paltry financial aid but in the same breath attempt to deceive ourselves by claiming that we are making an appropriate contribution.

Other examples of selfishness can be observed in Ministers’ belief that everyone and every service – health, justice, education, social welfare is a commodity – whose existence should only be justified if the right kind of market price can be paid by a consumer; with little or no reference to citizens with shared responsibilities and entitlements. 

This reverence for commercialization and competition – a sort of increasing epidemic of American ‘every person for themselves’ values – becomes a justification for giving up on the responsibilities of government, as illustrated by the following questions.

Why shouldn’t Australia dispatch asylum seekers from Nauru to Cambodia, one of the world’s poorest and most corrupt countries ? Why should Australia take a lead in responding to the threat of climate change, let’s concentrate on protecting our economy? Why should those who don’t go to university pay taxes which could benefit those who do go? Why shouldn’t those least able to afford it make a co-payment to GP’s?

Taken to extremes, the cult of selfishness produces an anarchy of self-interest in which the prime motive is to reward your country, your organization or yourself at the expense of others. Accountability to principles of fairness and justice is irrelevant. Allegiance is owed to oneself or one’s tribe, and entrepreneurial characters can do almost anything if they can get away with it.

Australia justifies spying on the East Timorese politicians in order to gain advantage in negotiations over revenues to be obtained from oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea. Corporations may pay no taxes or as little as possible, and may justify such conduct as sound business practice. Federal MP’s rort their travel and accommodation expenses, NSW State MP’s from both major parties engage in corrupt conduct over election funding. For Eddie Obeid and his cohorts, political and business dealings are the same because the main objective is to maximise power, control and profit.

Doing what you can get away with also means that those with power and resources can foster their influence, but poorer, less influential citizens must realize that life has to be about competition to attain economic efficiency. Therefore they should pay more for health services, for the care of the elderly, for child care, for various forms of primary, secondary let alone tertiary education. But if it comes to payment for involvement in a war, the values change. Militarism is the proud part of our history, so funds can be found. In military initiatives mateship blossoms, selfishness has no place.

As with any other country, Australian culture can be understood and passed on in the stock of stories we like to tell about ourselves: the resistance of gold miners at Eureka; gallantry at Gallipoli or on the Western Front; Chifley’s light on the hill; Whitlam inspired universal health insurance; Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations.

What stories shall we tell about current events?  We don’t really care about Africans suffering an Ebola epidemic. With almost no debate from the major parties, we passed as much anti-terrorist legislation as possible. Partly to foment fear, some politicians and media outlets deflected attention from searching questions about the need for such legislation by encouraging  Islamophobia, as in scapegoating Muslim women.

Until a grass roots movement protested, we even proposed the absurdity that unemployed people’s entitlement to welfare assistance would depend on whether they applied for at least 40 jobs per month.

The responses to the Ebola epidemic are the most immediate indication of the values which influence the Australian government’s – not the Australian people’s – concerns and policies.

Oxfam forecasts that the Ebola epidemic could become “the definitive humanitarian disaster of our generation”. Australian medical personnel have been pleading that they are ready to help and the deputy leader of the opposition, Tania Plibersek, has at least acknowledged that Australia’s response has been ‘short sighted and inadequate.’

We may live in a tough, market driven, terrorist-threatened world, but if leaders think only of protecting privileged interests, the notion of a civil society is eroded: selfishness in policies and in terms of individual traits opposes the idea of a social world.

Australia must realize the consequences of the cult of selfishness, not just in terms of the response to Ebola. The Government, with the aid of the Opposition, could determine that it will re-invent itself as an international citizen and will recover generosity as a key value to influence its local, national and global objectives.

* Stuart Rees is the founder of the Sydney Peace Foundation.

Emeritus Professor Stuart Rees AM is a regular New Matilda contributor, an Australian academic and author who is the founder of the Sydney Peace Foundation and Emeritus Professor at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney in Australia.