What do our political leaders stand for?

Jan 11, 2021

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

Credit – Unsplash

We all look for political leaders who have conviction. While they have to make compromises from time to time, whether in government or opposition, we still need to know ‘what they stand for’. This is because values underpin their policies.

How much conviction do Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese have?

Take, for example, the issue of tax policy. All too often it becomes a technical discussion about winners and losers when what is really at stake is the sort of society we want and how tax can help us provide that goal.

Tax is a means to an end. It is not an end in itself. Oliver Wendell Holmes put it succinctly when he said that taxes are what we pay for a civilised society. This is where the discussion about tax should start. What do we value in society?

Similarly, as a society we also need good managers but management per se is a secondary issue. The important issues are the values and principles that guide policy and the programs that then  must be managed well.

Principles as the basis for policy

We need leaders and political parties to express a clear set of principles that accord with the best of our values as 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 underpin a coherent set of policies and programs that implement those policies.

Values > principles > policies > programs.

Compromising on issues such as refugee policy simply legitimises the behaviour of those who exploit people’s fear. This drives out sensible and reasonable political debate and confuses supporters.

Many of us are quite optimistic about human nature and recognise the importance of the public sphere as a place where people can realise their full capabilities. Ideas can be expressed in such coherent principles as fairness, opportunity, stewardship, the common wealth, including enhancement of social, environmental and institutional capital and the protection of natural resources.

Australia is facing great challenges – climate change, a rising and confident China, an ageing population, a transfer of wealth to older generations at the expense of the young, a reliance on commodities for exports, deficits in human capital and a weak base for public revenue. The ‘what’s in it for me’ politics discourages us as a nation from facing these challenges, as this requires trade-offs. Some people will have to pay more than others and some will have to forego benefits now for the sake of longer-term benefits. Transitions can be painful but are more likely to gain support when people understand the principles underpinning and driving public policy.

When a political party is unified around a set of principles, it is still possible to have robust debate about how to give effect to those principles. MPs will be able to engage with the electorate in a consistent and sincere voice, with less reliance on ‘talking points’ and spin and with less concern with the immediate reaction of focus groups.

Supporters would be much more prepared to accept compromises if they knew there was strong leadership and there was broad agreement on key values and principles. Leaders have to be consistent and patient to ensure they win broad support from the people – and never go backwards. Authenticity and sincerity are easily recognised. Think Jacinda Arden.

From values to principles

Most people accept the values of fairness, freedom, citizenship, stewardship and ethical responsibility as a way to guide their lives. As the values are translated into practice they can be further defined as principles that then lead to policies, e.g. the value of fairness can be expressed in the principle of a stronger link between contribution and reward – a link that has been severed by hugely disproportionate executive pay, high returns to rent seekers and financial speculators and the long head-start of inherited wealth.

Fairness/equity

A ‘fair go’ is primarily about economic opportunity.

A good education for all is the base, while those who put their education 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 government handouts. The Nordic countries have demonstrated that education and incentives for participation do produce fairness and economic prosperity.

Fairness implies that we are tough towards ‘bludgers’, whether they dodging tax, cheating on social services, or have inherited wealth and expect to be indulged, protected from competition, and offered government hand-outs.

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

Areas where we fall short in fairness include

  • Unfairness in taxation
  • Neglect of early childhood education
  • Treatment of the needs of Indigenous people and refugees
  • Diversion of education funding to wealthy schools
  • Inadequate official development assistance (ODA).

Freedom

We all have rights to the extent 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; but is eroded step by step.

We must promote our freedoms vigorously – 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 the separation of church and state.

Areas where we fall short in freedom include:

  • The growing power of cabinet and executive, which is not adequately balanced by parliament. Governments go to war without approval of Parliament.
  • Not having a Human Rights Act.
  • Highly intrusive counter-terrorism legislation that has reduced freedoms.
  • A fourth estate that increasingly fails to protect our freedoms and often facilitates abuse of power by lobbyists.

Citizenship

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 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 that 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 where we fall short in citizenship include:

  • Our withdrawal into the private realm; for example, gated communities, private entertainment.
  • Private rather than public transport and the resulting reluctance of influential people to support investment in public transport.
  • Disregard of neighbours.
  • Government subsidies, private health insurance and private schools that discourage socially mixed communities around shared public schools and public hospitals
  • NGOs have increasingly become part of government.
  • Tax avoidance by large corporations.

Stewardship

We have inherited a stock of assets or capital that must be retained and enhanced:

  • 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).

We must use our resources as efficiently and productively as possible. Areas where we fall short in stewardship include:

  • We are among the highest per capital carbon polluters in the world.
  • This heavy strain on the planet is prejudicing our grand children’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 high office and who have public influence should promote those qualities that draw on the best of our traditions and the noblest of our instincts.

Their duty is to encourage hope and redemption rather than despair and condemnation, confidence rather than fear. To promote the common good – to encourage us to use our talents. 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 that nurtures public institutions

Areas where we fall short in ethical responsibility include:

  • Leaders who appeal to our worst instincts, e.g. dog whistling on refugees.
  • Executive salaries.
  • Undue influence of vested interests and corporate lobbyists.
  • Leaders who provide false comfort by ignoring or downplaying threats, including around climate change. They should help the community deal with difficult problems that may require painful adaptation.
  • Tax avoidance by large companies.

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

What do Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese really stand for? What are their values?

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