President Rev. Prof Andrew Dutney - Are we still a fair go society? The global ethic in Australia today

The Wilks OrationAndrewDutney
Effective Living Centre, Adelaide
17 May 2014

In one news bulletin on Wednesday morning I heard the Federal Treasurer say, delivering his Budget speech the night before, “We must not leave our children worse off. That’s not fair. That’s not our way”. And I heard John Falzon say on behalf of the St Vincent de Paul that the same Budget will “rip the guts out of what remains of a fair and egalitarian society”. Both sides of the argument cite “fairness” as the principle that justifies their position.

 Normally I wouldn’t have noticed it, but I’d been thinking about the topic for tonight’s lecture, “Are we still a fair go society?” So the appeal to “fairness” just stood out. But that’s the thing, it’s such a normal part of our social and political discourse we don’t notice it most of the time.

The title of tonight’s lecture, “Are we still a fair go society?” is of course fallacious. It’s a loaded question like “Have you stopped beating your wife?” For it begs the question, “Have we been a fair go society in the past?” And although there’s a great deal to be proud of in Australia’s history, and many instances where the principle of fairness has been applied well and effectively, in absolute terms it would be hard to argue that our past is uniformly “fair”. That’s what the national apology to the Stolen Generations was about in 2007. That’s what the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse is about. That’s what the enactment of anti-discrimination legislation of various kinds since the 1970s has been about. We aspire to being fair and, against that aspiration, regularly find ourselves to have fallen short.

But that’s the thing: fairness is an aspiration, a shared value. The “fair go society” is, in the positive sense of the word, an Australian “myth”. I don’t mean “myth” in the colloquial sense of something false. I mean it in the technical sense of a shared narrative that that conveys the core values of a society – its moral identity – from one generation to another.

Families and individuals are often sustained by a myth with which they identify themselves. That is why a sudden disaster, or even sudden success, can be so disruptive. Redundancy can shatter a person who only knows himself as “the breadwinner”. A big lottery win can destroy a family who has always identified themselves as “battlers”. But, equally, a rural community might survive a natural or economic disaster just because its members identify so deeply with the story that “country folk are practical, self-reliant, loyal friends, and good neighbours.” It is a myth, of course. Not in the sense that it is a lie or delusion, but in the positive sense that it provides an imaginative system within which all the disparate details and experiences of life can be organised into a coherent whole, into a world.  And you just can’t live without a world - not for long, anyway. (But that’s another story.)

David Malouf has said that, “The one word that sums up what Australians demand of society, and of one another, is fairness, a good plain word that grounds its meanings in the contingencies of daily living. It is our version of liberty, equality, fraternity and includes everything that is intended by those grand abstractions and something more: the idea of natural justice, for instance. It’s about as far as most Australians would want to go in the enunciation of the principle.”[1]

A meaner Australia

During the past decade, Australian public intellectuals have been expressing concern about the durability of our shared commitment to fairness as the Australian community has appeared to have become “meaner”.[2]

Hostile towards asylum-seekers, suspicious of "welfare cheats", decidedly cool on multiculturalism, opposed to anything that smacks of "special treatment" for particular groups, and tired of being responsible for Aboriginal poverty: the 21st century Australian voter has liberal intellectuals very concerned, and even a little frightened.  So an elder statesman like Fred Argy collected and analysed evidence that "Australia is in the throes of a major retreat from egalitarian values".[3]  While an intellectual "fresh legs" like Ghassan Hage argued that Australians, along with Westerners in general, "are suffering from compassion fatigue" (Hage 2003, p.7).  Of course there are skeptics too.  David Burchell, who works in the heartland of Australian disaffection from liberalism, teaching Humanities at the University of Western Sydney, cautioned against over-dramatising the lack of sympathy for migrants and asylum-seekers.  The best evidence suggests that "Australians are not extremists in such matters" but simply express "a desire for balance, moderation and limits".[4]  He chastised his colleagues, arguing that "liberal intellectuals have developed a bad habit of attributing pathological qualities (such as racism or even xenophobia) to those currents in public opinion with which they happen to disagree".[5]  And Hage's attribution of "paranoid nationalism" to the Australian people certainly seems to be an example.  It is a “bad habit” argued Burchell, that simply plays into the hands of political conservatives, fuelling the "anti-elitism" that they happily exploit.[6]  In other words, it only makes matters worse. That is, even Burchell acknowledges that there is something amiss.  He is simply urging that it should not be exaggerated.

Striving for the lowest common denominator

The Australian community is renegotiating its consensus on how people should treat each other. An obvious example is the current proposal to amend Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act to remove provisions that make it unlawful to "offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate" someone because of their race or ethnicity. Legislation of this kind reflects a broad social consensus on how people should treat each other. The fact that it’s up for debate is almost as important as the debate itself. It indicates that we’re in a time of renegotiating how we regard each other, what we owe each other, and how we should treat each other.

There are other examples too, such as the need to agree on what’s OK and what’s not OK when it comes to social media – in every sphere of life from home, to school, to workplaces and churches. (In a recent gathering of UCA ministers I asked about how they dealt with social media during worship. Every one of them could describe their congregation’s policy and strategy and no two were the same.) Another example is the debate about what the end of “the age of entitlement” might mean for the assumptions we’ve had about the way the community backs up its members in times of need. This week’s enactment of the closure of that “era”, in the shape of the Federal Budget, has provoked one of the most interesting and important public conversations in recent memory. And, of course, the most obvious example of the Australian community renegotiating its consensus on how people should treat each other is the national debate on how we should treat people who make their way to our country in search of asylum. On every front we are renegotiating our consensus on how people should treat each other.

How should we treat each other? Jesus said, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31). He said, "Love your neighbour as yourself" (Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31). It was nothing new. Even Jesus' critics knew that (Luke 10:27). St Paul had known all his life that it summed up all God's commandments to Israel (Romans 13:9). And all the world's religions say something similar. Even the atheistic ethics of Peter Singer includes this "principle of reciprocity": treat others as you'd like to be treated. 

We still have plenty of differences. Even different families of Christians have beliefs or practices that distinguish them from other followers of Jesus. Differences between the world’s religions and philosophies are far more profound. But we have this one thing in common. When it comes to conversation between people and traditions that take these things seriously, this is our lowest common denominator. We all agree on this at least, we should treat others as we would like to be treated.

Easier said than done, however. It may be the lowest common denominator but it is still a high calling.

To know how I'd like to be treated if I was in your situation, I have to imagine what it's like for you to be in your situation. That's hard to do without knowing a bit about you. Your name and background is a good start. (This is part of the morally corrosive effect of the policy of hiding asylum seekers from us, and all their personalising, human details. It leads to horribly ignorant responses of the "let them eat cake" variety. Marie Antoinette is remembered as fatally unable to imagine what it was like to be a French peasant.)

The public debate on asylum seekers has been thoroughly corrupted by misinformation and scaremongering. So we need to begin here, with the Government implementing a properly resourced community education campaign that removes the stigma that has been attached to asylum seekers and refugees and explains clearly what Australia’s obligations are under international law.

Australians are generally generous, hospitable people but have been enabled to be mean and cruel in this situation by having “the problem” kept well out of sight and beyond hearing. The detention and processing of asylum seekers offshore or in remote parts of Australia must be ended. It should be replaced by the system of community detention.

And we need to work out how we can become so frightened of “others” that we lash out and mistreat them in a way that we would never want to be treated ourselves. In this case we are frightened of asylum seekers, but we have been frightened of different “others” like this before. We need to work out why we’re afraid and then do something about it. Our soul depends on it.

Political leaders know instinctively how to evoke a fear response in people. It’s been a science since the time of Aristotle. There can be very worthy reasons for arousing a fear response in the public. For example, it’s appropriate to encourage people to make proper bushfire preparations. But there are unworthy reasons too, such as scaring people so they are more likely to vote for you. The process of evoking a fear response is the same.

People won’t feel afraid while they feel in control of the things that contribute to their wellbeing. So, to evoke a fear response, the strategy is to make people feel that their wellbeing is at stake – that the Australian way of life and values that is kept safe by “border security” is being threatened by irregular boat arrivals. Then, make people feel that the event that threatens their wellbeing is imminent – keep a running tally of the number of boats and passengers, framed as a single event, the unfolding of a single coordinated plan. And make people feel that they (or those who represent them) do not have control, then introduce images such as “a peaceful invasion” into the public debate.

Once we are sufficiently afraid for our wellbeing we will welcome a plan to “stop the boats” or to “break the people smugglers’ business model” by just about any means and at just about any cost.

Meanwhile Jesus and all the world’s wisdom tells us that our wellbeing actually requires that we “do to others what you would have them do to you”.

The editorial in The Age on 24 November 2012 put the issue very well: “Australia does not have an asylum-seeker problem; Australia has a political leadership problem”. Barbara Kellerman, in her excellent book Bad Leadership has concluded that, “If leaders are incompetent or corrupt, so are at least some of their followers.” She offers some suggestions on how “followers” can lift their game and influence the quality of their leaders.

First, “empower yourself.” That is, recognise that you do have a certain amount of power as a person and a citizen and use it. Second, “be loyal to the whole and not to any single individual” or, in this case, recognise that party loyalties are unhelpful and recommit to the search for policies that are genuinely oriented towards the common good. Then, “be skeptical”, “develop your own sources of information”, “find allies” and “take collective action”. It’s all pretty obvious when you think about it. But that’s the point. When we’re afraid we don’t think well. We miss the obvious. We end up being led by the nose.[7]

If "the age of entitlement” really is over we need to make sure that sense of entitlement that says "I'll do what I like" is on the table with everything that's up for renegotiation – including the version that says "We'll decide who comes to this country and under what circumstances".

The Australian community is renegotiating its consensus on how people should treat each other. I truly hope that we aim high and see if we can't agree on the lowest common denominator: Do to others as you would have them do to you.

But what if we don’t?

Outrageous claims. Radical hope.

Last night at the commissioning of the new National Directors for UnitingWorld and Frontier Services I said that it’s a coincidence that the church’s “good works” in community services, aid and development look much the same as any other NGOs and meet with the approval of government and society. I said it’s a coincidence because we don’t actually base our actions on a cultural consensus or a common ethic – not even a global ethic formed around the principle of reciprocity or Golden Rule.

Paragraph 3 of the Basis of Union describes the function and character of the church in the context of the missio Dei, the eternal purposes of God revealed in the action of God in history.  And this view of the function and character of the church is largely organised around an affirmation of "the end in view for the whole creation".  In other words, the end of creation, its destiny in God’s plan, determines the shape and action of the church.  And the end of creation is discerned from the church's memory of the saving action of God in history, primarily in the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

That there is this "end" is a recurring theme in the Basis.  It is referred to directly in paragraphs 1, 3, 8, 17 and 18 and, in a variety of ways, is implicit in virtually every other paragraph.  Moreover, the Basis is clear not only that there is such an "end in view", but also about what we expect the end to be like.  In paragraph 1 the end of the world is identified as that day "on which it will be clear that the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of the Christ, who shall reign for ever and ever".  In paragraph 17 it is described as "the final reconciliation of humanity under God's sovereign grace".  Then in paragraph 3 it is envisioned as "reconciliation and renewal…for the whole creation".  This is not the scorched-earth version of the end of the world rehearsed by fire and brimstone preachers.  It is the end of the world which we come to anticipate by looking at the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus: the Healer, the Mediator, the Reconciler, the Life Giver, the one in whose name we would expect the coming of "reconciliation and renewal…for the whole creation" and nothing less.

This, the Basis of Union insists, is what God intends for the world.  This is what God is doing in the world.  In spite of all appearances to the contrary this is what is going on all around us now.  This "reconciliation and renewal…for the whole creation" is the end of the world.  It is the missio Dei.  So it is described as God's "pledge" in paragraph 3.  And it is affirmed as "promised" in paragraph 3 and again in paragraph 18, “promised”.

Then, in paragraph 3 the reason for the church's existence is explained by referring to "that end" to which God is moving all things:

“The Church's call is to serve that end: to be a fellowship of reconciliation, a body within which the diverse gifts of its members are used for the building up of the whole, an instrument through which Christ may work and bear witness to himself.”

So the church itself exists as a foretaste, sign and instrument of the end of the world.  It exists for the sake of the promised "reconciliation and renewal…of the whole creation".

From time to time in history the values and policies of the surrounding society coincide with those that emerge from this vision of the Gospel of God’s mission of reconciliation and renewal. When that happens the church gladly cooperates with those who are pursuing goals consistent with the missio Dei. In large measure, we’ve been in such a time in Australia – and long may it continue. But we must not assume that it will go on indefinitely.

So I want to conclude by referring to a widely quoted off the cuff comment made by Cardinal Francis George, then Archbishop of Chicago, in 2010.

He said to an audience of his priests,

"I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history."

In a later blog, explaining what was going on his mind when said this, Cardinal George wrote;

“God sustains the world, in good times and in bad. Catholics, along with many others, believe that only one person has overcome and rescued history: Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of the Virgin Mary, savior of the world and head of his body, the church. Those who gather at his cross and by his empty tomb, no matter their nationality, are on the right side of history. Those who lie about him and persecute or harass his followers in any age might imagine they are bringing something new to history, but they inevitably end up ringing the changes on the old human story of sin and oppression. There is nothing “progressive” about sin, even when it is promoted as “enlightened.””[8]

He’s probably overstating his case, but it reflects an attitude towards the surrounding society and culture which is not hostile, but still gives absolute priority to the vision of the Gospel of the missio Dei in making judgments about the church’s role in the world.

So, are we still a fair go society? Well, in so far as we ever were we probably still are. Even so, especially over the last decade or so, and in the light of the events of this week, we need to be aware that we cannot assume that the Australian myth of “fairness” can be guaranteed. The Church needs to be ready for that.


[1] David Malouf , “The LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture”, University of Toronto, March 12, 2004, quoted in David Hackett Fischer, Fairness and Freedom: A History of Two Open Societies, New Zealand and the United States, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012, pp.19-20

[2] Fred Argy, Where to From Here?  Australian Egalitarianism Under Threat (Sydney, Allen & Unwin: 2003) p.50

[3] Ibid

[4] David Burchell, “It's Not the People Who Failed” The Australian, 2003 p.13

[5] David Burchell, Western Horizon: Sydney's Heartland and the Future of Australian Politics (Melbourne, Scribe Publications: 2003) p.54

[6] Ibid pp.44-45 and 55

[7] Barbara Kellerman, Bad Leadership: What it is, How it happens, Why it matters (Harvard Business School Press, 2004)

[8] Read more: http://www.ncregister.com/blog/tim-drake/the-myth-and-the-reality-of-ill-die-in-my-bed#ixzz31vqW2Agw Accessed 16 May 2014