Beyond the political rhetoric, hard hats and Akubra’s – What do our political leaders really believe?

By JOHN MENADUE | 15 September 2018

Power does reveal substance. It tells us quite quickly about the values that drive political parties and political leaders. Scare tactics are always a sure sign that the values and policy cupboard is bare.

We can accept that our leaders must make some compromises from time to time, but we need to know ‘what they stand for’. We look for leaders who have conviction. Hypocrisy and double standards become very obvious.

For example, we need to discuss tax reform, but so often it becomes a technical discussion when what is really at stake is the sort of society we want and how tax can help us in the goals we seek. Tax is a means to an end. It is not an end in itself. Oliver Wendell Holmes put it succinctly that taxes are what we pay for a civilised society. That is where the discussion about tax should start. What do we and our leaders really value?

We also need good managers, but management is a secondary issue. The important issues are the values and principles that should guide policy and programs which in turn must be managed well.

Unfortunately values, principles and ideas have given way to ‘small target’ electioneering and the marketing of products. We talk about ‘party brands’. Money has replaced membership as the driving force of election campaigns.

We need leaders and political parties to express themselves in a clear set of principles which accord with the best of Australians’ values. Otherwise the political contest is reduced to satisfying short-term materialist ‘aspirations’, appeasing vested interests and managing the media cycle. From community values a set of principles of public policy can be developed. Those principles can underpin a coherent set of policies and programs which implement those policies.

Compromising on issues such as refugee policy and civil liberties simply legitimises those who exploit people’s fear and is likely to drive out sensible and reasonable political debate and confuse supporters.

Many of us take an optimistic view of human nature and recognition of the importance of the public sphere where people realise their full capabilities.

These ideas can be expressed in consistent and coherent principles such as fairness, opportunity, stewardship, the common wealth – including enhancement of social, environmental and institutional capital and protection of natural resources.

Today, Australia faces great challenges – climate change, reconciliation with our Indigenous people, population ageing, commodity-based exports, drugs, deficits in human capital and a weak base for public revenue. The politics of “what’s in it for me?” – as we see so often in the media – discourages us from facing these challenges, for there will have to be trade-offs. Some will have to pay more than others and some will have to forego benefits now for the sake of longer term benefits. Such transitions can be painful, but are more likely to gain support when people understand the principles underpinning public policy.

When a political party is unified around a set of principles it can still have a robust debate about how to give effect to those principles. But it would be in control of its message because its parliamentary representatives can engage with the electorate in a consistent and sincere voice – with less reliance on ‘talking points’ and spin and with less concern with the immediate reaction of focus groups.

Party supporters would be much more prepared to accept political compromise if they knew that there is strong leadership and there is broad agreement on key values and principles. Leadership has to be patient and consistent around these values and principles – and never go backwards. Authenticity and sincerity are then easily recognised.

Values such as fairness, freedom, citizenship, stewardship and ethical responsibility would be generally accepted by most people. As the values are translated into practice they can be further defined as principles that then lead to policies; e.g. the value of fairness can be expressed in the principle of a stronger link between contribution and reward – a link which has become severed by hugely disproportionate executive pay, high returns to rent seekers and financial speculators and the long head-start of inherited wealth. The following is indicative of a set of values and their expressions in principles.

Fairness/equity

A ‘fair go’ is primarily about economic opportunity. People should be provided with a good education and those who put it to socially useful ends should be rewarded. Governor Lachlan Macquarie was no socialist but his ‘tickets of leave’ gave the outcasts and underprivileged of this country another chance. We built a nation this way. We must give a chance for newcomers and all people to have another opportunity.

Fairness promotes social mobility and limits division and resentment. Fairness should not be restricted to education. The path to prosperity with fairness is through productivity and well-paid employment rather than government handouts. The Nordics have demonstrated that education and incentives for participation do produce fairness and economic prosperity.

Fairness implies that we are tough towards ‘bludgers’, whether they be tax-dodgers, the vulgarity and indulgence of those with inherited wealth, protection from competition, government hand-outs and favouritism or cheating on social services.

Fairness implies full employment as a macro-economic goal to ensure human capabilities are not wasted. Areas where we fall short in fairness include:

.  Massive tax avoidance

Large scale privatisation and commercialisation of public assets for private gain

.  Privileged access for vested interest and their lobbyists

.  Neglect of early childhood education

Treatment of the needs of Indigenous people and refugees

Diversion of education funding to wealthy schools

Subsidies for the wealthy to jump the queue for hospital care

Tax benefits for older property owners at the expense of younger non-property owners

Inadequate ODA

Freedom

We all have rights to the extent that they do not lessen the rights of others. Except where the rights of the vulnerable are at stake, the government should not intrude into the private realm.

Denial of freedom does not happen overnight; it is eroded step by step. We must be vigorous in promoting our freedoms – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the rule of law and free and fair elections. The potential abuse of power should be minimised by the separation of powers and the separation of church and state. Areas where we fall short in freedom include:

The growing power of cabinet and executive which is not adequately balanced by Parliament

We have no Human Rights Act

We have severely reduced freedom as a result of counter-terrorism legislation. Yet domestic violence is a far, far greater problem

The media increasingly fails to protect our freedoms and often facilitates abuse of power by lobbyists

Citizenship

We are more than individuals linked by market transactions. Our life in the public sphere is no less necessary than our private lives. As citizens we enjoy and contribute to the public good. It is where we show and learn respect for others, particularly people who are different. It is where we abide by shared rules of civic conduct. It is where we build social capital – networks of trust.

We need to behave in ways that make each of us trusted members of the community. ‘Do no harm’ is not sufficient. Citizenship brings responsibilities – political participation, vigilance against abuse of power, and paying taxes. Areas where we fall short in citizenship include:

Our withdrawal into the private realm – there are growing gated communities, private entertainment

Commercialisation and privatisation of public land and parks

Private rather than public transport and resulting reluctance of influential people to support investment in public transport

Disregard of neighbours

Government subsidies, private health insurance and private schools that discourage the coalescence of socially mixed communities around shared public schools and public hospitals

.  NGO’s have increasingly become part of, or intimidated by, government

Stewardship

We have inherited a stock of assets or capital – environmental capital (forests/water), public and private physical capital (roads/ports), human capital (education), family capital (family and friendship bonds), social capital (trust), cultural capital and institutional capital (government and non-government institutions). That stock of assets must be retained and where possible enhanced.

We must use our resources as efficiently and productively as possible. Areas where we fall short in stewardship include:

.  We are among the highest per capital carbon polluters in the world

We are placing a heavy strain on the planet, which prejudices our grand children’s future

We waste water and degrade the land

We continue to log old growth forests

We are degrading the Great Barrier Reef

Ethical responsibility

Those in prominent office should promote those qualities which draw on the best of our traditions and the noblest of our instincts. The duty of those with public influence is to encourage hope and redemption rather than despair and condemnation, confidence rather than fear. It is to promote the common good – to encourage us to use our talents.

It is to respect truth and strengthen learning to withstand the powers of populism and vested or sectional interests. This would set a tone of public discourse which nurtures public institutions. Areas where we fall short in ethical responsibility include:

Leaders who appeal to our worst instincts; e.g. ‘dog whistling’ on refugees

Executive salaries

Undue influence of vested interests and corporate lobbyists

Those in public office should help the community to deal with difficult problems which may require painful adaptive change, such as climate change, rather than provide the false comfort of ignoring or downplaying them

Tax avoidance by large companies

We need leaders and institutions that make clear what they stand for on key values and principles, which are then translated into policies and programs. We can accept political compromise but we need to know first what politicians stand for.

(John Menadue AO worked for Gough Whitlam, followed by a distinguished career in the public and private sectors. He headed the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, was Ambassador to Japan, and later CEO of Qantas. Now retired, John is a patron of the Asylum Seekers’ Centre in Sydney. This article originally appeared in John’s own blog, “Pearls and Irritations“.)