Some readers may recall that under the Morrison government in 2020 the Department of Home Affairs released a document called Life in Australia: Australian values and principles.
The statement was an odd one at the time, insofar as its main purpose was to explain the government’s idea of our values to visa applicants. In this regard the list of what we value turned out to be quite narrow. It asserted that we value the individual, freedom of religion, speech and association, commitment to the “rule of law”, parliamentary democracy, equality of opportunity, the fair go, and the English language.
In releasing the statement, Home Affairs never bothered to check that these are the values we actually hold. However, the University of Western Australia (UWA) took the trouble to check and found that while Australians do value some of these things, their whole character and preferences for the sort of society they want to live in can by no means be reduced to these few traits.
In the UWA study and several other surveys conducted nation-wide in Australia over the last twenty-five years it is not at all apparent that Home Affairs’ preferred list equates to what we value, either as individuals or as a society. Instead, these studies highlight a preference for benevolence; safety, stability and security in all relationships – and therefore peace; appreciation of and tolerance for the welfare of all (including those we don’t know); honesty and ethics in governance and corporate behaviour; and fair outcomes for all (not just the fair go). These and several other values uncovered by the studies matter more to Australians than the individualism and the conformance to rules and traditions placed front and centre in the Home Affairs list. Australians would prefer to secure their wellbeing and that of their children by building a cohesive society that appreciates rather than extinguishes their diversity and they would prefer to focus on honesty and ethics in all relationships (a value that is entirely absent from the Home Affairs statement).
In my recent book, The People’s Constitution: the path to empowerment of Australians in a 21st century democracy, I collated the results of all these studies to assemble a list of what we have said we value as Australians. Our responses in these surveys have shown some changes in preferences over the last couple of decades. Notable changes include that we value religion less and the natural environment more, the planet and species diversity more, Indigenous wellbeing and rights more, human rights more, women and gender-diverse people more, and nationalism less. But most of the other values have remained fairly constant in their importance, most notably – peace.
This assembly of values forms a positive picture of the type of society Australians have said they want to build. The research shows that this is a compassionate, life-affirming, inclusive society. This is what we cohere on – at least according to the studies. It is a picture of the society to which we want to belong. And it is a picture of what draws us together. It defines what we stand for. The full list of probable preferred values of Australians that emerges from this research can be accessed here.
The generosity and inclusiveness of the assembled values might be surprising, but there is nothing irrational about the list. If a nation were to succeed in enshrining these values in a defining document, such as the Constitution, and also in creating a system of governance and law conducive to living those values, then that country would be an amazing place to live. It would be a place full of positive hope and security for everyone.
In their responses to surveys Australians have shown that they are actively imagining that place but as yet they have not been given the opportunity to take the first step towards it. The first required step is to establish a fully open national conversation (unimpeded by politics) that will enable Australians to confirm what they value as a cohesive society and to place that right at the front of the statement which defines and indeed makes or breaks the nation – the Australian Constitution.
At the moment, the Constitution says nothing about what we stand for and as such it exposes us to all manner of risk, most notably the risk of loss of the natural environment on which our livelihoods and life itself depend and the risk of being sent to war when it is contrary to our national interests. Unless we place the values that hold us together right at the front of the law which governs all other laws, we will lose what we value most.
This means we need a new constitution – a people’s constitution. As yet, though, Australians have not been given an efficient way to conduct the necessary conversation about which values they wish to include in their first Statement of Australian Values. But it is easy for any Australian to check that the values that have said they prefer are actually the ones they want as a society. All they need to do is to imagine their stated values in reverse. This reverse imagining is always a useful exercise in helping people select preferred values because it so quickly reveals the direction in which nations will travel if they fail to commit to these values or adopt an opposite value set and character.
Anyone wishing to check that the values Australians have repeatedly supported in surveys are the ones that will best serve our shared purpose of building the future we might really want can undertake this exercise. If they do, they will find themselves describing two starkly contrasted futures.
A quick insight into what life in Australia will be like if we select values that are antithetical to our probable preferences can be found here where it can be seen that the values research has shown to actually be held by Australians are fundamentally life-oriented, whereas their antitheses are decidedly not.