No To Dick Smith, Yes To Common Good


A sustainable and compassionate future requires a major rethink on all the issues we say we hold dear, writes Professor Stuart Rees.

Businessman Dick Smith spends one $1 million on an anti-immigration advertisement but misses the point of his own arguments. He damns economic growth and endless consumption, then scapegoats population increases via immigration as the main cause of a global, capitalist driven destruction.

If Smith had considered the economics and politics of a common good, his advertisement would have been far more helpful, and even cost effective.


Struggles over Values

Two themes characterise the promotion of a common good: concern with an economics which facilitates all citizens’ creativity; a democracy preoccupied with respect for human rights.

The outcome of such efforts depends on the values which affect politics, the governance of institutions and the content of everyday conversations. Those values include altruism, inclusiveness, respect for collective interests and for protection of the planet.


Socially just policies and democratic practices can be affected by citizens who are courageous, cosmopolitan and cherish non-violence, who are curious and willing to learn.

The significance of values which would attract the general public can be depicted in reference to specific policies, beginning with those concerning employment and income.


Promoting Collective Interests

The work-income-housing, health care, education formula works well for large proportions of the population. They could be deemed economically successful.

The same formula works poorly for those who are on low wages, have only casual employment and must struggle to find and afford somewhere to live. For those who are unemployed, struggle with a disability or are homeless, that formula does not work.

Even the apparently economically successful live with an illusion. Their success has been accompanied by others’ poverty, by growing inequality, by violence associated with the arms trade, by global warming, pollution and other forms of destructiveness to the environment.

A proportion of citizens have work which they find satisfying. Others have work which they experience as purposeless, emotionally and physically destructive. They can’t wait for the day when they might retire and be able to find activities which they and others deem useful.

Given that chequered record, how do we build a culture in which everyone can be involved in work which is fulfilling and could also contribute to others’ well-being? The answer to that question looks as though it will depend on guarantees of sufficient income to be able to make choices about work which, in philosopher Andre Gorz’ words, would be ‘socially necessary and make for balanced lives.’ That policy issue needs to be addressed in terms of economic justice for all, and in response to the increasing influence of artificial intelligence as illustrated by work done by robots.


Universal Basic Income

A vision of income to facilitate satisfying work introduces the details of a Universal Basic Income, paid unconditionally at the rate of a single age pension. Such a payment would give security, address poverty and would facilitate taxation because the basic income of each citizen would be known.

The objection to UBI, that it could not be afforded, can be set aside provided the merits of taxation are acknowledged. Instead of politicians and media commentators always treating taxation as a negative, they could show the links between taxation, civility and freedom. In her recent book, ‘Democracy in Chains’, Nancy Maclean shows how citizens’ freedom depends on struggles between the free marketeers who argue that no one should be taxed against their will and those who insist that democracy demands intervention to achieve equity.

Parliament House, Canberra.
Parliament House, Canberra.

Maclean writes, “The choice we face is between unfettered capitalism and democracy. You cannot have both.”

A universal basic income would address poverty and inequality. In Australia, negative gearing could be removed and capital gains tax re-introduced. Death duties could be paid on all estates over $2 million and tax avoidance by the use of family trusts would be tackled. Governments would clamp down on tax avoidance by rich individuals and by powerful companies.


Altruism or Egoism

Policies characterised by altruism and by generosity could address social and economic inequalities, nationally and internationally. Since the Coalition came to power in 2013, Australia’s current overseas aid contribution is distinguished by a disgraceful meanness, an unprecedented reduction to 0.22% of gross national income.

As a foundation of a civil society, altruism embodies the idea of a gift given to a stranger without expectation of reward. That value is inherent in universal health insurance which also implies that no-one should be financially penalised for being sick.

Medicare is a crucial feature of such common good policies but it could only claim to be universal when extended to cover dental and mental health services.

Human rights principles presuppose equal opportunity in education. For that objective to be achieved, education has to cease to be regarded as a commodity which can be purchased in the market place where advertising implies that the higher the price the better the product.

In a recent New Matilda article about the need for a revolution in Australian universities, Kristen Lyons and Richard Hil referred to an equitable and democratized workplace which would also provide a ‘debt free education based on public service and social justice.’


Inclusiveness and Non-Violence

Policies of inclusiveness would heed Aboriginal Australians’ requests that their calls for justice be acted on. The 2017 Constitutional Conference at Uluru recalled that, in 1967, Aboriginal people were counted, and today they wish to have their voices heard. Their plea to be given at least an officially recognised consultative place in government is long overdue.

A month ago, at the Garma Festival in Arnhem Land, the celebrations included reference to the healing notion of Makaratta, a coming together, a making of peace. If we needed an Aboriginal stand on the notion of a common good, here it is.


Violence as a central feature of the history of our treatment of Aboriginal people has been compounded by official determination that, until recently, first nation peoples should be invisible and seldom included in deliberations about national affairs.

Asylum seekers and refugees have also been excluded and treated violently. Australian governments’ cruelty towards the asylum seekers imprisoned on Manus Island and Nauru has been maintained by a policy of keeping these people invisible, inaccessible and largely unheard, even if the financial costs of doing so have been exorbitant.

References to cruelty also occurred in my recent conversations with refugees in camps in Jordan, the Gaza Strip and Lebanon. In the latter country, where tens of thousands have been contained for decades, a leader in one camp said, ‘We only want the chance to prove we are human beings.’

Palestinian and Syrian children in class at the Bourj el-Barajneh refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon. (IMAGE: Chris Graham, New Matilda)
Palestinian and Syrian children in class at the Bourj el-Barajneh refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon. (IMAGE: Chris Graham, New Matilda)

In the Bourj el-Barajneh camp, my interpretation of exclusion contains poetry spoken by Palestinian refugees, “We are exhausted by the illusion of our right to return, we plea for escape from the shackles of our permanence, with which our jailers, in alliance with something called the international community, have crafted the fantasy that we remain silent, we should be invisible because we do not exist.”


Protecting the Planet

For several reasons, ways to combat global warming could also appear under the heading Inclusiveness and Non-Violence. Every level of governance – local, regional, national – should be included in the alliance to save the planet.

In her appraisal of capitalism versus the climate, Naomi Klein details the importance of crafting a new economy by linking one socially just policy to another. She paid particular attention to ways to redefine work and create jobs. She wrote, “… climate action is… a massive job creator as well as a community rebuilder…. Solutions to the climate crisis are also our best hope of building a much more stable and equitable economic system, one that strengthens and transforms the public sphere, generates plentiful, dignified work, and radically reins in corporate greed.”

Inclusiveness also reminds us that other environmental issues are at stake. Policies to address climate change must also consider water security, forest and other habitat loss, land clearing, competition over scarce resources, global conflict and the massive movement of refugees.


A Charter of Rights

If Australian governments want to be perceived world-wide as supporting human rights, the basic values associated with rights have to be taken more seriously at home. A country which promotes cruelty towards asylum seekers can’t claim to be a supporter of human rights. A country cannot be considered a supporter of human rights if it has a Foreign Minister who says she has no idea about any international law which makes Israel settlements on Palestinian land illegal.

Australia remains the only liberal democracy in the western world whose laws and policies are not influenced by a Charter of Rights. In consequence, laws are upheld by the High Court which sanction cruelty, as in the judgement that imprisonment of asylum seeker children is lawful and that it is not illegal to detain someone indefinitely.

The moral and legal yardstick provided by a Charter of Rights could influence public conversation and the crafting of policies.

Palestinians search through the rubble of their destroyed homes hit by Israeli strikes in the northern Gaza Strip, during the 2014 assault. (IMAGE: UN Photo/Shareef Sarhan, Flickr)
Palestinians search through the rubble of their destroyed homes hit by Israeli strikes in the northern Gaza Strip, during the 2014 assault. (IMAGE: UN Photo/Shareef Sarhan, Flickr)

In domestic and foreign policies, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the protocols which give it legal powers, can foster collective interests, political liberties and cosmopolitanism. The outlook influenced by cosmopolitanism indicates a concern not just with Australian citizens but also with the life chances of West Papuans, Tibetans, the people of Western Sahara and Palestinians.

It will take courage to become a genuine international citizen by asserting the interest of such peoples, but being courageous in that way can be a fillip to self-respect and mental health. Try it !


New Economy, Inclusive Culture

Dick Smith raised questions about the absence of population policies. His challenge needs to be related not just to levels of immigration but also to water and food security, to policies about the future of work, to the uses of artificial intelligence and other technological innovation.

Another creative citizen has asked a more penetrating question concerning the need for a new economics, for a more life-enhancing and altruistic culture and society. At the end of his significant memoir, Come The Revolution, the distinguished and gutsy journalist Alex Mitchell, asked, “Hands up everyone who believes central banks, stock exchanges, the City of London, Wall Street, Goldman Sachs… the International Monetary Fund, the mining, oil and gas companies will rescue the economy and the environment?”

Mitchell foreshadows an end to the days when freedom meant that greed was good, that obscene salaries paid to company executives could be justified and that environmental destruction was of no consequence.

The common good alternative would promote non-violence, include everyone in the creation of valued work, make protection of the planet a political priority and ensure that human rights became the catalyst in domestic and foreign policies.

Achieving these objectives will require courage to embrace radical ways of thinking about ways to build social justice in a society no longer dominated by capitalist, corporatist economics.

* This is an abbreviated version of an address given recently to the progressive think-tank the Ngara Institute.

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.