Democracy Flourishes when the Common Good is Front and Centre of Government

20 / 03 / 2015

Hands up who remembers when public policy making was about the public interest? Informed by experts and evidence, viagra and not ideology? In a world increasingly dominated by self-interest, sale and where voices of dissension too often tackle the person and not the policy, sovaldi Women’s Trust Executive Director Mary Crooks calls out the real issue – the erosion of the common good in the public policy decisions that shape our lives, and collective future. This article first appeared in ‘Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia?’, produced by Australia21 and edited by Bob Douglas and Jo Wodak. Other contributors include John Hewson, Joyce Chia & Pat Dodson. Download it here:

Australians live in a robust and enduring representative democracy.

We are free to debate ideas and express dissenting views without being coerced, or being placed under house arrest or even worse. We can assemble in the streets and protest about issues without fear of victimisation or violence.  Any citizen may stand for public office and we have the right to vote for people to represent us in all three levels of government –federal, state and local. We accept, maybe grudgingly, our responsibility to pay tax. We embrace the concept of a ‘fair go’ and have applied this over the decades in shaping our institutions, welfare systems and political discourse. Mostly, we see ourselves as standing for equality between people.

The idea of the common good appeals, even if largely at a tacit level: we acknowledge that our shared responsibility as citizens in a democracy is to debate with tolerance, directly and through our elected representatives, the best means to create opportunities, apply regulations, continue to build (and not sell) our public assets and provide services that meet the basic needs of the population (such as Medicare) and sustain the environment (such as an emissions policy).

This ethos of governing for the common good, however, is under threat – and from within.

In the space of the past five months, we have witnessed the removal of two first term state governments in Victoria and Queensland, including the inglorious defeat of Queensland Premier Newman in a massive electoral swing. Current polling suggests that the existing federal conservative coalition could also become a one-term wonder. Politicians and media pundits seem to be reacting tothis rotating doors syndrome byblithely ascribing it to ‘public volatility’, to poor communications by government, or to an obstructionistSenate.But there is something deeper at play.When it comes to governing for the common good,  our politicians and major parties are losing the plot.

It comes down to some simple but powerful propositions. People have an entirely reasonable expectation that elected governments – whatever their political persuasion – will work hard, and transparently, for the electorate at large, respect the will of the people, debate ideas and issues with civility, implement pre-election promises, desist from back flipping in dishonest and cavalier fashion, refrain from introducing surprise policy measures that are patently unfair or punitive, work to people’s best sides, and keep clear of corrupt and nepotistic behaviour.

Most of all, people expect their elected representatives to focus on developing the collective capacity to meet complex challenges and to govern for the good of all rather than taking their riding orders from vested sectional interests and/or US-based media moguls. They are frustrated by sledging – such as when both major parties treat with contempt minority parties or Independents or when good ideas or deserved contestation are met by derision, cheap shots or personal attack.

This corrosive attack on the common good was more recently catalysed by the tactics of Tony Abbott as Opposition Leader during the period of the Gillard minority government – and it was clearly on display in the first Abbott/Hockey Budget, for example, with its draconian unfairness with respect to young job seekers.

Tossing aside respect for democratic principles, sections of our politics, business community and media persisted with the claim that the Gillard minority government ‘lacked legitimacy’. Frequentcalls for a ‘fresh’ election were issued despite the fact that this minority government was legitimate, was constitutionally valid and was formed in accordance with the central provisions of our Westminster system.We also witnessed a vicious gender-based undermining of a female prime minister.

This ‘tear-down’ mentality was aggressively promoted by sections of the Australian media. A politics of negativity and hate was fuelled by Abbott and his supporters. Notedjournalists chose to become players in the game rather than provide dispassionate analysis. Vitriol were given undue airplay by radio presenters. Social media facilitated an unprecedented level of abusive language and misogynistic attitudes thatflew in the face of personal accountability and civility.

Disappointingly, media analysts persist with the narrative that Abbott was one of the most effective Opposition Leaders ever because he dispatched both Rudd and Gillard. This so-called measure of political ‘success’ might sit well with a male-dominated culture of adversarial politics. But it could equally be ventured that Abbott was a hugely deficient Opposition Leader because his tactical negativity savagely eroded the ethos of the common good. This is no better illustrated than the destructive approach he took to the urgent need for effective action on climate change.

As a nation, we were actually getting there!We had the compelling scientific evidence before us as a community.  We had the international treaty agreements, the public policy framework formed largely by the Garnaut reviews, strong community support for action and policies that reduced emissions and finally, carbon pricing legislation in place.

Despite these crucial cornerstones for governing in the common good, Abbott instead gave oxygen to the climate deniers who muddied the wateron global climate science. He campaigned relentlessly for two years against carbon pricing, playing to people’s fear of a household economic penalty despite the clear threat of a planet in peril.

The catch-cry of a ‘Great Big New Tax’ may have been politically effective for him and his party in the short term, but it has come at great cost otherwise, recklessly shifting people’s attention from the message of climate science and the responsibility on us all to rise to the common good challenge.

The huge reservoir of goodwill and confidence in government’s ability to act for the common good and take correct actions to mitigate climate change was squandered and will need to be rebuilt. We are now in the hapless position with no effective remedy to reduce emissions; with diminished community confidence; and a significantly tarnished reputation globally.

Democracy works best when the common good is elevated and respected by all.Governments are installed in the expectation of serving full terms and act in accordance with their mandate to implement policies that advance the common good. Governments should focus on policies and programs that assist wealth creation as well as enhancing fairness, social cohesion and the protection of the most vulnerable. Opposition parties at all times need to prepare viable policy alternatives to take to the people. The media must provide impartial and substantive analysis of issues.The voting public seeks to engage respectfully with elected representatives and with one another.

Democracy flourishes when the common good is front and centre of our politics and government. This is now our formidable challenge – pushing back against the continued corrosive attack on the common good. It will take patient exhortation (at election time and in between) to remind the mainstream parties to govern for all; to better represent the diversity and talents of the wider community; to focus on building our collective capacity to take action on the big issues; and to be become more grounded in the realities of people’s lives and aspirations than that revealed by focus groups and opinion polls.