Australian values? Who are we kidding?

Our Australian “values” need to be grounded in the reality of life in Australian communities and not just a list of words we agree to, writes David Crosbie, CEO of the Community Council for Australia in Pro Bono News, 27 April 2017.

At a local dawn service with my family on ANZAC Day, the featured speaker talked about “Australian values”. Like most Australians, I value and respect this special day where we remember and acknowledge the sacrifice so many have made, and the terrible cost of war. As I looked around at the assembled crowd, I found myself wondering exactly what “Australian values” did we really represent?

At the same time, to commemorate the same occasion, our prime minister was in Iraq and Afghanistan praising the important work of our troops and talking about “protecting our Australian values”. Again, I value the work of our troops and all who keep us safe, but is this really all about Australian values?

In a discussion on ABC TV 7.30 a few days earlier defending changes to tighten Australian citizenship requirements, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull identified Australian values as “freedom, equality of men and women, the rule of law, democracy and ‘a fair go’,” and claimed these were “uniquely Australian”.

“They are shared with many other democracies but… there’s something uniquely Australian about them,” he said. The prime minister also referred to our pride in these values and our commitment to them.

These values the prime minister refers to are not only shared with many countries and cultures around the world, they are also shared with most of us working in the charities sector.  

When CCA brought 60 outstanding leaders from across the charity sector together in 2015 (including over half the Pro Bono Australia Impact 25 members) and asked what values were most important in the Australia they would want to live in, it was a relatively straightforward process to arrive at an agreed list of desirable values.  

Being fair, just, providing equality of opportunity to men and women, were included in the 14 core values agreed by the CCA AusWeWant Forum.

What was hard for these charity leaders was not naming values they think of as essential in their communities, but agreeing what those values might mean in practice. How do we measure the values we think are important or the values our prime minister talks about as having a uniquely Australian character?  How do we make words like fair and just, and equality of opportunity meaningful? What is their utility? What do they mean in practice? How do we know if we are enacting the values we talk about?

Let’s start with equality of opportunity for men and women. The PM talks about gender equality including “in the corridors of power in politics”. What measure might an Australian prime minister apply to ensure he (or she) was delivering equality of opportunity for all Australian men and women?

Turnbull Cabinet

The Turnbull cabinet has just 10 women out of 41 positions. The number of elected female Coalition members of Parliament is the lowest it has been in over 20 years  –  only 17 per cent of government MPs are female. Under Turnbull, three retiring female MPs (Bronwyn Bishop, Sharman Stone and Teresa Gambaro) have all been replaced by men.

The Coalition has defended not preferring women candidates in pre-selections arguing all their pre-selections are merit based. Their opposition, the Australian Labour Party, has introduced a quota for female pre-selections. In the current House of Representatives, 40 per cent of ALP MPs are women. The ALP will have 50 per cent women MPs by 2025.

Forty-one countries have more women in Parliament than Australia. If “equality of opportunity for men and women” is a “uniquely Australian” value, perhaps all these countries that have more women in decision making roles participating in their parliamentary processes are more “uniquely Australian” than we are?  If the number of women in Parliament is not the measure (and it may not be), what is?

In the Australia We Want first report, CCA used the measure of female participation in employment as one measure of equal opportunity and found mixed results across the country.  CCA also used perceptions of personal safety and found that women in Australia feel less safe than in most OECD countries, while Australian men feel safer than their OECD counterparts.  What does that say about Australian values?

The CCA Report also asked how “‘just” Australia is, by measuring how many of us are free or locked away. The Report found that: “The number of prisoners in Australia rose by seven per cent in 2015. The rate of imprisonment grew by 6 per cent. Our rate of incarceration is 196 per 100,000, higher than any country in Western Europe, more than double Scandinavian countries, and higher than comparable countries such as Canada and Ireland where the imprisonment rate is less than a third that of Australia.”

When our prime minister talked about freedom and the rule of law, perhaps imprisonment rates were not the measure he was thinking about, but if they were, Ireland is obviously much more “uniquely Australian”.

When considering how the value of fairness was reflected in our communities, CCA examined income inequality and used the accepted measure for income distribution, the GINI coefficient.  AusWeWant found that: “Australia’s GINI coefficient has increased between 2011-12 and 2013-14, indicating growing inequality in the distribution of income, while also being higher than most OECD countries.”

Australia is not a society where income is distributed fairly compared to most OECD countries and policies that reduce inequality (like death duties on the richest 5 per cent) are not even on the table for discussion in Australia, despite being accepted practice in countries like the UK, US and Canada. Claiming values like fairness as uniquely Australian may be reassuring, but I know of no measure suggesting Australia is particularly fair compared to most equivalent countries around the world.

Lists of Australian values can sound nice and help us feel our country is special, but these discussions seem somewhat removed from policy or practice. Do any of the values we promote as uniquely Australian actually inform our national policies?

It is important to embrace discussions about what values matter to us, our families, our communities, our country, but making a list of words we can all agree to is not a particularly useful end in itself.

The charities sector is well placed to talk about what values actually mean in practice, how values are or are not being enacted in our communities, and what we can do to more fully realise values like fairness and justice that we think are important.  This is partly why CCA has committed to publishing the Australia We Want reports.

Our values should never just be about the words themselves. Our values need to be grounded in the reality of life in Australian communities, and that will not happen if we allow hollow rhetoric about Australian values to go unchallenged.

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