John Menadue. Citizenship and shared experience.

Apr 3, 2014

The recent decision by the NSW Government to evict pensioners and low-income tenants from the Rocks in Sydney highlighted for me the importance of mixed communities and shared experiences.

We all benefit in society when we have shared experiences. We can then get to know other people’s aspirations and their problems. We invariably find that we have much more in common than we think. We benefit both as individuals and as a society.

Why should only one part of society, the wealthy, enjoy harbour views? Why should a mixed community that has lived for so long in one area be destroyed with low-income tenants forced out whilst the wealthy join other wealthy to enjoy harbour views and the attractive lifestyle that goes with the Rocks.

In shared experiences we are drawn in two ways. One inclination is to live in pleasant and attractive areas that are often composed of people like ourselves with the same incomes and even the same ethnic backgrounds. But we also know that we benefit from shared experiences with people who are different. Our most important shared and common experiences are in times of natural disaster – bushfires and floods which tear away social class. We are in the emergency together and we find great satisfaction in banding together. Many older Australians recall the common hardship of the Depression, the War and rationing. For Britishers, the bombings and air raid shelters brought people to a ‘common experience’. Despite the hardships and the danger, there was satisfaction in those common experiences. The fabric of society and trust in each other was strengthened.

As Ian McAuley in ‘Dissent’, November 2012, has pointed out, the British sociologist Thomas Humphrey Marshall wrote in 1949 about ‘common experience’ as an essential ingredient for good citizenship. This common experience is a richer notion than social inclusion. Unfortunately social exclusion by the wealthy is becoming as serious a problem as social exclusion of the poor.

It is not just the Sydney Rocks that is being pulled apart. Our health and education institutions discourage the mixing of social groups and denying common experience.

Ian McAuley points out that government subsidies to private health insurance discourages the well-off in the use of public hospitals. Because PHI, particularly for people on the high tables, is used almost entirely to fund treatment in private hospitals, government policy subsidises a form of social exclusion and discourages common experience. It also encourages many articulate people to opt out of support for public hospitals knowing that when they need hospitalisation, they can turn to private hospitals.

The trend in the denial of common experience is even more obvious in education. In the 1950s, 75% of Australian children attended public schools. Most of the other 25% went to Catholic schools which had a similar social, if not religious, mix as public schools. Now only 65% of students attend public schools. This trend is even more pronounced in secondary schools where just over 60% of secondary school students are in public schools. This proportion is even lower in early grades of secondary school. And this trend away from common experience in public schools is accelerating despite the fact that there is no evidence that private education secures better outcomes. It will take many decades of Gonski to reverse the unfortunate and divisive trends that are occurring. Common experience in schools is being eroded.

As more and more middle class and articulate parents opt out of public education, a tipping point will arise where it will be hard to ensure public support for public schools. That tipping point is approaching

Just as the government subsidies to PHI has driven social exclusion in hospital use, so in education government funding is being skewed in favour of the privileged in private schools. The concept of common experience is being steadily eroded.

We are also seeing this denial of common experience in our built environment. In my blog of November 28, 2013 “there goes the neighbourhood” I drew attention to the way that some communities are being sundered by the wealthy excluding themselves from common experience. They have private pools within minutes of superb public beaches, private entertainment systems, high walls,roller doors and CCT to keep themselves from a common experience with neighbours. Even when public transport is reasonably available, children get driven to school in private cars.

It is claimed that these developments in our health and educational institutions and in our built environment is justified on the grounds of choice. But choice is often a one-way street available only to those with high incomes. What choice do the low income tenants in the Rocks have about where they are going to live?

We all know that common experience in national disasters and volunteering brings a sense of togetherness, community and shared humanity. We must nurture institutions that promote sharing and common experience. The most critical is shared experience in schools and education.

We need institutions and a built environment that cut through social class. That is the path to shared experiences.

The more we turn our back on common experiences the more our citizenship and society is impoverished.

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