ALLAN PATIENCE: What are Australia’s values?

There has been talk of late about Australia’s values which are said to parallel the values of related countries, especially America and Britain. Implied in this talk is a view that these values characterise civilised – even superior – nations, in contrast to certain countries in our region, especially China. However, precisely what constitutes Australia’s values is not coherently addressed by their advocates, many of whom appear unconcerned that their values narrative contains echoes of the old white Australia policy, with all its insular, racist and xenophobic connotations.

Australia postures as a middle power on the world stage. Those who claim this status for the country point to its system of representative government, its commitment to the rule of law, its ideals of mateship and egalitarianism, its strong alliances within the “Anglosphere”, its successful multiculturalism, its affluent economy, and its reputation as a sports-loving nation. These attributes, they believe, win for it respect, even admiration, in regional and international forums. Aussie values – how good are they!

These claims need to be measured against what can be characterised as a country’s governance integrity. This refers to the closeness of fit between policies that advance public wellbeing and the transparency and moral intelligence of politicians and bureaucrats in devising and implementing those policies. If there is a close fit between these two realities, a state is also likely to be able to influence global politics through sophisticated “niche diplomacy” initiatives.

Public policies that contribute to the public good – to social wellbeing – include, inter alia, the nurturing of gender, ethnic, and socio-economic equality, individual and community flourishing, social justice, comprehensive public education and health services, and effective welfare programs. A high level of governance integrity also requires the absence of corruption and the presence of respect for a life of public service, as its own reward, within the nation’s political culture.

What may we say about Australia’s level of governance integrity?

Transparency International annually tracks the positioning of states worldwide on its Corruption Perceptions Index. Over the past decade or so Australia’s trajectory on that Index has been steadily downward. We are becoming a more corrupt nation, not less. Meanwhile, senior politicians on both sides in the federal parliament shamefully resists the establishment of a truly effective anti-corruption agency at the national level, even as recent allegations about criminal activities in the gambling industry are being aired – allegations that also raise questions about potentially corrupt interventions by politicians.

Internationally, contemporary Australia’s human rights reputation is seriously undermined by two especially shocking examples of human rights violations. The first relates to the on-going marginalisation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The obstinate refusal of the Morrison government to lead a public campaign to provide an “Indigenous Voice” to the Australian parliament is only the latest example of the persistence of widespread prejudices about the country’s First Peoples. The second relates to the evil concentration camps in which the Australian government imprisons asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru. For as long as these morally repugnant attacks on the rights of Indigenous Australians and genuine refugees are maintained, Australia’s claims to be respectful of human rights will be seen for what they truly are – a sustained national exercise in rank hypocrisy.

Australia’s position on cooperation to halt the effects of global warming has resulted in its international reputation as a “laggard state” on climate change. This negativism on the worlds stage is reinforced by the Turnbull and Morrison governments’ refusal to sign the 2017 International Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (cravenly kowtowing to pressure from Washington).

Precisely how reflective are Australia’s foundational institutions of the values said to be underpinning them? Consider the big banks. The Royal Commission into Financial Services uncovered a range of illegal, corrupt and dishonourable practices that have disgusted large swathes of the community. Moreover, the regulatory bodies that should be keeping them honest have been shown to be weak and ineffectual. And next to nothing is being done to curb these leaches on Australian society and the economy. The current Royal Commission into Aged Care is also revealing appalling behaviours by leading providers. These are but two examples of crucial institutions whose “values” are frankly despicable.

Then there are the institutions of so-called representative government at state and federal levels – our state and federal parliaments. To claim they are genuinely representative of the citizens of this country is a nonsense. They are seriously and serially unrepresentative of the peoples of this country. This unrepresentativeness is exacerbated by the political party machines responsible for selecting the candidates for parliamentary seats and all the inflated perks that go with them. The mostly white males who are our parliamentary members almost daily articulate narrow perspectives on public policy, often demonstrating remarkable ignorance of the needs of the citizens whose wellbeing they are meant to be serving.

There have been times when things were different. Consider, for example, the era of public policy in the aftermath of World War II ­– the era of Post-War Reconstruction. As Stuart Macintyre has shown in his excellent 2015 history of this time, it was Australia’s Boldest Experiment in this country’s public policy-making. And as Frank Bongiorno has shown in his equally fine book (also 2015), The Eighties, the public policy achievements of that decade reflected a commitment to civic values that echoed the effective policies of the Post-War Reconstruction era – values that contribute to the public good, not just the wealth and power of the undeserving few.

Sadly, the values displayed by today’s public policy-makers are of a very low order indeed. As Niki Savva has revealed in her recent book, Plots and Prayers, our leading politicians are largely a back-stabbing, vengeful and morally purblind lot. The values of high statesmanship are in very short supply right across the Australian political spectrum.

So, it is increasingly difficult to take the talk about Australia’s values seriously. Our values are marked more by complacency than values that nurture active citizenship focusing on the wellbeing of all. Indeed, most of the Australian values talk is simply humbug.

Allan Patience is a Melbourne-based academic.



Dr Allan Patience is a Principal Fellow in Political Science at the University of Melbourne.

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4 Responses to ALLAN PATIENCE: What are Australia’s values?

  1. Avatar Rob Stewart says:

    When I saw the title of this piece I thought it was an interesting question. The talk about equality, social justice, fairness, nurturing of gender etc was all very good, then Allan gets to the point about how abysmal we actually perform. It made me think of a shortlist of points for modern generalised Australian values, particularly those pertaining to the political realm and public policy. Without much thought here are a few contenders for a shortlist:
    1. There are lifters and leaners;
    2. You’ll get a go if you ‘ave a go;
    3. Unions are evil;
    4. Refugees are “others” are not welcome;
    5. Growth is great, no matter what the cost;
    6. The best form of welfare is a job – no matter what the job is;
    7. Climate change is crap – and if it isn’t we can’t do anything about it anyway;
    8. Coal is good for humanity;
    9. We’re a classless country.
    10. There is no such thing as the top end of town;
    11. Anyone who says there’s a top end of town is just a hopeless sour loser – there’s no difference between Port Pirie and Point Piper;
    12. An indigenous voice to parliament would destroy Australia as we know it;
    13. Taxes are evil;
    14. All government expenditure (except on weapons, prisons and politicians salaries and perks) is a waste;
    15. Growth will always be higher when taxes are lower;
    16. Hard working Banks and other big businesses are unfairly maligned by losers and leaners;
    17. Things have never been better;
    18. Homelessness has an “upside”;
    19. If you talk about ‘public goods’ you’re a commie bastard;
    20. How goodz Scomo?;
    21. How goodz straya mate. ‘Carn the Sharkies!

  2. Australian values are clearly lacking in its foreign policies as well. A case in point is Australia’s deeply flawed and unjust discrimination and delegitimisation of the Republic of Macedonia. Australia was isolated with its policy of denying Macedonia’s right to self determination. When the Republic of Macedonia was pressured to change its constitutional name despite breaches of international law, Australia was quick to welcome the change as a historical opportunity. Racism, lack of ethics and undermining of democracy, human rights and the rule of law has become the norm in Australian foreign policy. The solution is to involve all Australians to have say on policies and issues that impact them. Relying on overpaid and under-performing federal MPs and the fat cats in the Australian Public Service is not sustainable.

  3. Avatar Kien Choong says:

    I used to think that our “values” are beyond reasoned scrutiny; but have since learned from Amartya Sen and Adam Smith that we can scrutinise our values “from a distance”, from the perspective of an impartial spectator.

    I also learnt from Amartya Sen that we can (and do) change our values over time, through public reasoning and external scrutiny (from a distance).

    Whereas US diplomats often say that their role is to proclaim “American values” in foreign countries, I would argue that their true role is to closely examine the values in other societies in order to scrutinise American values.

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