Peter Whiting.

Simply Australia – Sydney Harbour Bridge. Hai Linh Truing. flickr cc.

In putting forward the proposal to revamp the Australian citizenship test, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull stated that most people would be pleased that “…we are standing up for Australian values”. At first flush, this seems an appealing proposition. But a closer observation opens up a host of issues.

In an Australia where there are growing divisions sourced in inequality of opportunity, income and wealth disparity, alarm about the scale and mix of immigration, and disagreement about the balance between development and sustainability, can we even discern what today constitutes shared “Australian values”?

When the example questions for the new test are considered, they raise the genuine concern that they are shaped to play on the fear created in the media and within politics by conflating the idea of terrorism with being Muslim.

Are we being treated to an opportunistic and rather shabby attempt to achieve political traction, rather than espouse Australian values? In the light of my remarks about our society’s sharp divisions, it would be indeed presumptuous for me now to list what I consider to be “Australian values”!

UnAustralian values to avoid?

Let me state some examples of what I consider should NOT be Australian values. For my first set of ‘unAustralian values’, I echo observations that Jenny Begent made in our last newsletter (insert link). Acceptance of an entrenchment of poverty and disadvantage in Australia and denial of the opportunity to flourish are surely not what we want to see characterising Australia.

In a period of over 20 years of uninterrupted growth in jobs, wages, and GDP, with what lack of foresight have we created such housing pressures to emerge and such an incidence of homelessness on our streets?

Soberingly, Professor Richard Tomlinson, Professor of Urban Planning, in his review of the extensive recent literature on Australian housing policy, concludes that the current policy mix distorts the housing market, and is ultimately acting as a form of social welfare biased in favour of the wealthy. If he is correct, what does that say about Australian values? If the younger generation is ever to afford to house itself, how can it achieve this end when we have allowed the scandal of a youth unemployment rate in excess of 13% to become entrenched in our economic life?

Perhaps changing Australian values have allowed us to abandon Article 25(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and wellbeing of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, medical care, necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age, or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control”. For my next set of unAustralian values, I am ashamed to cite the treatment of asylum seekers in detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru. Perhaps unwisely, the Pope has recently referred to detention centres for refugees and asylum seekers as similar to “concentration camps”. As Klaus Neumann notes in his article on The Globalization of Indifference, such comments nonetheless make a forceful point about our attentiveness to people in great distress.

Of course, we need not go offshore to cite examples of our inadequate attentiveness. Australia’s First Peoples continue to die far earlier and experience a higher burden of disease and disability than other Australians. Why are we not able adequately to address the housing, education, and employment of indigenous Australians in a culturally relevant way? Is it perhaps that our failure to embrace constitutional recognition is another example of our confusion about “Australian values”?

In a somewhat confronting manner, John Menadue chose Anzac Day to express the concern that, as a nation, we have been too prone to accepting war as the remedy to difficult situations? Most of us would not claim the historical perspective to answer this question confidently in the positive, but, if he is right, is that an Australian value we would wish to embrace?

Re-gearing economics to support our values

In what cannot be a complete or perhaps even comprehensive list of unAustralian values, I cannot ignore my university days and fail to mention the economy. We have heard it so often that we probably believe it: “It’s all about the economy, stupid”. Well, in some ways this is true, but not as it is understood.

Nobel Prize winner for Economics Professor Joseph Stiglitz asserts that, if we do not act to make life equitable for all citizens, both economic productivity and our democratic system are threatened. Economics without emphasis on the people in it is not an approach shaped for success.

Lawrence Chong, writing on the address in Rome of Pope Francis to the Economy of Communion network, calls into question the capacity of the current global economic system to cope.   This network is proposing a different approach. At Social Policy Connections, we are interested in this nascent school of thought, and will be offering in coming months a presentation on the Economy of Communion.

It cannot be ‘the answer’, but this approach may have something considerable to offer in consideration of alternative perspectives. Certainly, its language is very different from the political rhetoric we hear now in Australia. I doubt we have often heard commentary about being gifts to one another! Let’s hope the insistence that markets of themselves will solve our issues is not part of our Australian value system.

I am all for our political system “standing up for Australian values” if those values are widely held in our community, and moreover that these values themselves are designed as a comprehensive system for an inclusive, welcoming, and caring society.

But I am not impressed with the invocation of “Australian values” for narrow and exclusionary motives. We will almost certainly hear our Treasurer in this coming week invoke references to addressing serious social and economic issues. I just hope I don’t hear a jingoistic reference to selective “Australian values”, whatever they may be!


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