MPs need a lesson in values

marilyn-lake-thumb Professor Marilyn Lake


First published in The Age on 22nd March, 2012.

Modern politicians forget that equality was once a shared national ideal espoused across party lines as the nation's founders struggled to define Australian values.

''Whatever may be the case in other parts of the world, it is clear that in Australia there is a struggle being waged between two conflicting principles … the principle of the special or private interest against the principle of the common interest.''

It might be Wayne Swan or Julia Gillard talking about their battle with Clive Palmer, Andrew Forrest and Gina Rinehart or with Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, but in fact it is neither. This is one of our federal fathers, Henry Bournes Higgins, writing in an essay called Australian Ideals, published 110 years ago, during the first year of our existence as a nation. In some ways it seems that not much has changed.

Higgins was describing opposing principles, rather than the operation of political parties. One principle stood for private gain while the other promoted the common good. But then, as now, the conflict between these warring principles was ''the staple of our newspaper controversies, our parliamentary debates, our economic and social discussions''.

The particular dispute Higgins had in mind was that between employers and employees over wages and working conditions and the right of the state to intervene to support minimum wages and maximum hours, but he regarded this conflict as having larger significance. It was a struggle to define Australian values, a struggle for the Australian soul.

Treasurer Wayne Swan put a similar argument recently in his essay in The Monthly on The 0.01%': Vested Interests versus Social Democracy. Swan sees Australian values as shaped by the past and in particular the commitment to egalitarianism as ''a product of our history and our national character''. But the historical tradition he invokes is a Labor tradition, exemplified by prime minister Andrew Fisher, who began his working life as a coal miner. Our history of struggle over the common good is more complex and inclusive than this.

Higgins' essay reminds us that the commitment to equality of opportunity - and state intervention to secure it - was once a shared national ideal, espoused across party political lines, promulgated by radical liberals, such as Alfred Deakin, Vida Goldstein, Charles Kingston and Catherine Spence, as well as Labor leaders such as Fisher, John Watson and Billy Hughes.

It is timely to recall these discussions about national ideals, because many contemporary Australians, blitzed by the myth of Anzac, know little of our founding political traditions and the people who shaped our values. Many forget that the founding ideal of the ''common good'' was expressed in the very name of the Commonwealth of Australia and that the reforms of universal suffrage, old age and invalid pensions and compulsory arbitration were enacted during the first decade of the 20th century.

For those who believe the Australian nation was born at Gallipoli and that Australian values are to be found in the Spirit of Anzac, it must come as a surprise to learn that our nation builders - women and men, liberal and labour - were laying down our national ideals during the long peace that preceded World War I.

Unlike Americans, no Australian nation builders had any experience of military service. They enacted their social experiments and defined their national ideals during a time of peace.

As a nation forged in revolution, Americans can so much more easily call up national political traditions to authorise political argument. But whereas their leaders invoke the story of ''freedom'', Australians expressed their resistance to Old World oppressions by enshrining a vision of ''equality'' at the heart of national life that was shared across party political lines.

Perhaps Australian politicians need an improved education in Australian history so that they too can engage with national traditions and freely quote our founding fathers and mothers. Higgins believed that ''our aim must be to guard this continent for the highest form of civilisation, to secure that the produce of its soil, and of its appliances, shall not become the property of the few; to make it a land of equal opportunities for the coming generations''.

Natural abundance, he believed, should be the inheritance of all Australians. More than 100 years on, however, the vision of ''a land of equal opportunities'' is no longer a shared national ideal.

Just as the gap between rich and poor has dramatically widened over the past few decades, so political values have polarised and the conservative rejection of any progressive legislation has become more strident. Higgins was proud that we were ''feeling our way by experiment''. The current opposition denounces efforts to price carbon emissions as a step too far.

With fresh debate raging now about how best to secure the ''common good'', perhaps it is time for the true liberals still to be found in the ranks of the opposition - those heirs of Deakin and Higgins - to reconnect with their political traditions by demanding that the wealth of the continent be more equally shared by all Australians.

Marilyn Lake is the Charles La Trobe professor in history at La Trobe University.