Shared Values? The Thick Rhetoric Of Malcolm’s Multicultural Statement


The Prime Minister’s foray into shared values and a united Australia sounds good at first blush. But it fails the ‘Rawls’ test if you look too closely. John Tons explains.

Malcolm Turnbull was understandably pleased with his Multicultural Statement released this week – it seemed to push all the right buttons. It was a statement that all members of the Government could endorse; a statement that would spike Pauline Hanson’s guns, for it clearly set out Australia’s core values.

But Turnbull may find himself disappointed, particularly if he or anyone in Canberra goes on to read and understand Rawls’s Theory of Justice. Through that lense, it’s cast in a different light.

The Multicultural Statement is little more than a contemporary rephrasing of Rawls’s two principles of justice:

  1. Each person has an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for all.
  2. Social and economic inequalities are to meet two conditions: they must be (a) to the greatest expected benefit of the least advantaged (the maximin criterion); and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

Rawls’s Theory was welcomed in 1974 for it appeared to rescue democratic liberalism from the challenges of the New Left – yet had anyone who takes a close look at the idea of justice as fairness, they would have realised that it was far more radical than anything the new left was proposing.

For example, the recent brouhaha regarding the ACTU’s claim that if a law is unjust one is perfectly entitled to break it. Rawls went a little bit further – he stated that such laws had to be abolished. As the Government’s statement clearly says: “Practices and behaviours that undermine our values have no place in Australia.” This would seem to override the earlier statement “We respect and we are committed to the rule of law.” For the implication of the document as a whole is that the rule of law is based on those core values, hence if we can demonstrate that a particular law is counter to our core values then we have a duty to seek its abolition.

When one reads the whole of the Multicultural Statement it is clear that there is an attempt to identify what the government means when it judges our society to be ‘well-ordered’.

Rawls argues that a well ordered society is characterised by certain features. The most important of which is the ‘publicity’ feature which is based on three discrete ideas:

  1. Everyone accepts and knows the same set of principles
  2. Basic social institutions conform to these principles
  3. The public conception of justice is based on reasonable, evidence based beliefs.

The government’s multicultural statement has identified a set of principles that it believes that everyone accepts and knows. Now it seems that everyone accepts these principles except of course some members of cabinet.

Consider this statement: “We support equality of men and women. We believe in equality before the law.”

This is entirely consistent with Rawls’s first principle of justice. That first principle is quite far reaching. If we consider the current debate about same sex marriage, we can see how this would be dealt with under the first principle.

Let us assume that we have two couples: a heterosexual couple and a gay couple. Both would like to get married. Under the law as it stands the heterosexual couple is free to marry but the gay couple is not. If the right to get married is regarded as a basic liberty, then the denial of the right of the gay couple to marry means that their liberty is restricted – it is in violation of the first principle of justice.

If the law is changed and all couples have the right to get married irrespective of their sexual orientation, then nothing changes for the heterosexual couple but for the gay couple the law now enables them to enjoy the same freedom as the heterosexual couple. The principle of liberty demands that our basic freedoms should apply to all.

Perhaps the government will do better with this statement: “We believe in equality of opportunity for all?”

Sorry close but no cigar. It is not enough to believe in equality of opportunity. Our institutions also need to put that in practice. There are numerous examples that we can use to show where our institutions do not reflect equality of opportunity – the most obvious being education.

Education is touted as the means whereby people can realise their full potential, hence one would assume that there are no systemic barriers to getting equal access to quality education. So presumably all education would be free and all educational institutions would have comparable resources. Unfortunately, the education system has been structured to perpetuate inequality.

I wonder whether or not the government paused to reflect on this statement: “We all benefit from our nation’s economic success, cultural and religious freedom and diversity.”

Is this reflected in Government policies? Here the problem for the government is that those basic principles of fairness enshrined in this multicultural statement will not lead to a meritocratic society. The idea of merit is a chimera. I did not choose my parents, where I was born, my gender or my skills and abilities – so to structure a society so that those factors influence my life chances is, in Rawlsian terms unjust. I cannot claim any credit for those factors about my make-up which are outside of my control.

But perhaps I can claim credit for my achievements? We hear of people being ‘self-made millionaires”, stories of people who worked hard and as a result became outstanding successes. Perhaps these people deserve extra consideration? Perhaps Mr Harbourside Mansion has merited his success? Did he not have humble beginnings? But has he not benefitted from our nation’s economic success, cultural and religious freedom and diversity? Would his success have been possible were it not for the way the fact that our institutions made it possible? By all means people should benefit from their efforts but they also need to pay their dues to society.

In a just society, the burdens and benefits arising from social co-operation are fairly distributed – government policies which are weighted against the least well off are hardly a manifestation of such a distribution.

So let us welcome this Multicultural Statement but use it as an effective tool whereby governments may be held to account.

In the seventies John was active in Student Politics. For much of his working life John worked in the area of Multiculturalism. He is currently completing a PhD on John Rawls at Flinders University.