The importance of values in government.

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Former senior public servant, John Menadue, explores how values are the foundation of good governance, allowing clarification about broad principles which can then be shaped into policies to be concretised in specific programs. He gives an assessment of current efforts to ensure fairness and equity, freedom, citizenship, stewardship of resources, and ethical responsibility in government.
Read further on John Menadue’s perceptive policy analysis.

John Menadue

inequality hurts
DSC_8882, Dean Chahim, flickr cc

Good government must be based on some broadly shared values which inspire and enthuse us.

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.

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.

We also need good managers, but management is a secondary issue. The important issues are the values and principles which 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 marketing products. Money has replaced membership as the driving force of election campaigns.

Principles as the basis for policy

We need leaders and political parties to express themselves in a clear set of principles which accord with the best values of Australians. 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 simply legitimises those who exploit people’s fear, and is likely to drive out sensible and reasonable political debate, and to confuse supporters.

income gains&losses
2009-2010 Income Gains & Losses – So Where are the Jobs?, Occupy* Posters, flickr cc

Many of us take an optimistic view of human nature, and recognise the importance of the public sphere in which 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, population aging, commodity based exports, deficits in human capital, and a weak base for public revenue. The politics of ‘what’s in it for me’ discourage us from facing these challenges, for there will have to be tradeoffs. Some will have to pay more than others, and some will have to forego benefits now for the sake of long-term benefits. Such transitions can be painful, but are likely to gain support only 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 reduced reliance on ‘talking points’ and spin, and with reduced concern for the immediate reaction of focus groups. Party supporters would be prepared to accept political compromise if they knew there were strong leadership and 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. 

From values to principles

Values such as fairness, freedom, citizenship, stewardship, and ethical responsibility would be accepted by most people. As such values are translated into practise, they can be defined further as principles which then lead to policies. For example, the value of fairness can be expressed in the principle of a strong 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.

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 through 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 handouts, and favouritism or cheating on social services.

Fairness implies full employment as a macro-economic goal to ensure human capabilities are not wasted.

Areas in which we fall short on fairness include :

  • Taxation
  • Early childhood education
  • The needs of indigenous people and refugees
  • Education funding to wealthy schools
  • Overseas development assistance (ODA)

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 of church and state.

Areas in which we fall short on freedom include :

  • The growing power of cabinet and executive which is not adequately balanced by parliament
  • We have no Human Rights Act
  • We have reduced freedom as a result of counter-terrorism legislation
  • The media increasingly fails to protect our freedoms and often facilitates abuse of power by lobbyists

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 for 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 which 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 in which we fall short on citizenship include :

  • Our withdrawal into the private realm – growing gated communities, private entertainment
  • 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 which discourage the coalescence of socially-mixed communities around shared public schools and public hospitals
  • NGOs have increasingly become part of government
  • Tax avoidance by large corporations

We have inherited a stock of assets or capital; environmental (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 enhanced where possible.

We must use our resources as efficiently and productively as possible.

Areas where we fall short on stewardship include :

  • We are amongst the highest per-capita carbon polluters in the world
  • We are placing a heavy strain on the planet which prejudices our grandchildren’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 on ethical responsibility include :

  • Leaders, who appeal to our worst instincts, eg dog-whistling on refugees
  • Executive salaries
  • Undue influence by 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 providing the false comfort of ignoring or downplaying them
  • Tax avoidance by large companies.

We need leaders and institutions which make clear what they stand for on key values and principles, which are then translated into policies and programs.

John Menadue was head of the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet from 1974 to 1976, and worked for Prime Ministers Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser. He was Australian Ambassador to Japan from 1976 to 1980. Back in Australia, he became Head of the Department of Immigration & Ethic Affairs, and from December 1983 was appointed Head of the Department of Trade.


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