Common ills & the common good.

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Peter Whiting.

photo greed kills
Bank of America GREED KILLS, Paul Sableman, flickr cc.

The daily newspapers are seldom the source of uplifting stories. Recent weeks have been no exception, with the usual catalogue of adversarial politics, serious accidents, violent crime, Royal Commission outpourings, stock market alarms all well represented. However, seizing a place on front pages has been a further set of scandals highlighting the business failings of large corporations and wealthy elites.

The corrupt dealings of the ‘Unaoil scandal’ and the opaque financial arrangements exposed in the ‘Panama Papers’ have now been linked to Fairfax Media allegations that tax haven arrangements of various wealthy individuals via Mossack Fonseca in Panama have been used to fund payments to corrupt politicians, officials, and corporate executives.

We need not look overseas to be concerned about what large companies are doing. Corporates and individuals in Australia are also caught up in questionable practices. Fair Work Australia is pursuing the national convenience store franchise 7-Eleven for wage fraud said to amount to over $100 million.

ASIC has alleged the major banks have been manipulating the Bank Bill Swap Rate (BBSW) to their own advantage. This comes after a number of other ‘scandals’ involving the banks have disclosed a culture of obsessive self-interest and led to calls for a Royal Commission into the banks and a public rebuke from the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Such events should not surprise. At their base level, they are about greed and self-interest. But they reach deeply into our cultural and political life. The call for a change to the business culture of the banks and other corporations, while doubtless justified, masks a need for change to values and structures by which we live as a society. We need to reappraise and reinstitute the idea of ‘the common good’ into our society values.

Various definitions of the ‘common good’ can be adopted, with the Roman Catholic tradition understanding the phrase as the sum total of social conditions enabling individuals and groups fully and readily to reach fulfilment through the just ordering of society. This definition has the benefit of recognising the role of individuals and groups, as well as acknowledging that, because they live in community, there is also need for an effective civil authority.

In his article on Labor’s agenda to tackle inequality, Tony French does not make reference directly to the common good, but cites Jenny Macklin’s call “for an overdue discussion about what kind of Australia we want”. Also, ominously, he closes with a challenge of how a failure to address the issue of equality may see a breakdown in social cohesion.

The call to address the kind of Australia we want is certainly not new. It lies at the base of the tax conversation playing out now in a rather unedifying manner. To pursue a just ordering of society will inevitably mean that special interest groups who have won for themselves preferential arrangements will be loud in their opposition.

John Menadue, in his article on taxes, while ascribing somewhat cynical political motives to the current state of taxation discussions, also lists where substantial revenue could be raised without overall altering tax rates at all. But it would mean modifying or dismantling preferential arrangements already in place for the benefit of powerful lobby groups.

The call for an ordering of our polity to obtain a just ordering of society also lies at the roots of the article by Jason Davies-Kildae on sanctuary for refugees. Jason characterises the offer of Church sanctuary as a stand against oppressive powers on behalf of the poor, the marginalised, and the vulnerable.

Regular readers of our SPC newsletter will know that we have been calling consistently for humane consideration of those who seek refuge in Australia but who instead receive harsh and oppressive official responses, often further exacerbating their plight by causing physical and emotional harm. It is cautionary to reflect on the reality that one of the best indicators of the ‘justness’ of a society is the manner in which it treats the disadvantaged and the needy. A truly just society is not one which abandons or marginalises those in need.

Michael Walter, in his article on youth poverty, adverts to another aspect of disadvantage in Australia which calls into question our commitment to those who, through no fault of their own, are in need. Youth poverty is not only about the immediate circumstance of those affected, but also, when unattended to, constitutes a significant barrier to later life improvement. Michael’s observation that “most importantly, all people in society need to feel as though they belong and can contribute without being judged” resonates strongly with the ideal of a just society.

Margaret Thatcher famously observed in October 1987 that “there is no such thing as society”; and later in the same speech “(t)here’s no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation”. A community committed to the ideal of the common good repudiates these ideas, and today we in Australia need to do so as well. We have worked to create the society we are today with the idea of ‘a fair go’ first for those mainly Anglo-Saxon settlers, and thankfully more recently in our history for a truly pluralistic society.

The fair-go society is seriously unwell, however, but not so much that it is moribund and beyond repair. But the signs are of concern: we are increasingly seeing the big leaning on the small, the powerful blaming the poor for their condition, men acting violently and abusively towards women, racial and religious intolerance growing – the lament goes on.

We need to see these symptoms for what they are. They belie a failure to challenge what we wish to be as a society, and to rediscover the idea of the common good, whereby we seek mutual flourishing of people in preference to a model in which individual focus is shaped almost exclusively by self-interest. We need the civil authority to work and care for the good of all, and not be manipulated by powerful business interests.

Whatever our party politics, if Australia is to embody the values of equity and fairness, then we should be open to Macklin’s call for the discussion of national values, and be ready to place social policy at the centre of the economic policy debate.

Our society is complex and its operations multi-levelled. While a debate, of itself, will not achieve the changes we need, without discussion of social policy and the actions and decisions which flow from it, we can be sure we will see more and more of the ‘common ills’ headlined in our papers. How much better would our world be if the headlines were reporting real progress with the common good?



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