Juanita Nielsen Memorial Lecture 2015 – Values in an age of uncertainty

I would like to show my respect and acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land, of elders past and present, on which this event takes place.

I would like to thank Senator Lee Rhiannon for the invitation to speak tonight. I have long admired Senator Rhiannon’s ability to ask difficult questions, to organise and attend grass-roots protests and her courage to speak out on issues which are politically unpalatable. Perhaps most of all I have been impressed by her ability to draw a steady stream of criticism from Australian author, columnist, political commentator and self-appointed guardian of taxpayers’ money, Gerard Henderson. She must be doing something right!

Before I begin, in the interests of transparency, I wish to disclose that I am not a member of any political party, including the Greens. I was formerly a member of the WikiLeaks Party, and its NSW Senate candidate in the last Federal election, because of my great respect for the journalistic work of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. Other than that my preference and my history has been independence, including running in several elections as a self-funded independent candidate.

As you’ve heard from Rita, Juanita Neilsen was a person who held a firm set of values. She was staunchly opposed to the corruption and dishonesty she encountered in government officials and property developers in Sydney in the 1970s, and the strength with which she held those values and felt obliged to speak out and act upon them ultimately cost her her life.

It is a privilege to be here with you tonight to remember such a courageous individual. I hope her courage can inspire us to look at where we are now and try to tease out the importance of values in our own lives as part of the political and social system we live in.

Sydney 40 years ago seems like a distant place and time. I can’t speak from personal experience but from what I have read and from what I have been told it operated in ways not dissimilar to what goes on now. Entrenched interests, a fertile field of opportunity for the wealthy and well-connected and a widespread undercurrent of corruption in various forms. Maybe there’s less corruption now, or maybe it’s just more subtle than the notorious brown paper bags of days gone by. But whatever the case,  the times we live in are much more technically complicated than before and people seem to be confounded, or at least distracted, by the overflow of this complication into their own lives. This confusion has permitted governments to follow paths that affront and offend the personal values of many citizens, or at least that would if they had the leisure to think about it.

Uncertainty is a natural element in all human activity but increasing uncertainty and the widespread reaction to it can have deleterious consequences for society.  Modern sources of uncertainty include rising income inequality and lack of stable full-time jobs, weak and misdirected private investment combined with government removing itself from economic processes, laws being used to benefit political and economic elites, the invasion of personal privacy and the looming food, water and energy crises, all of which will be exacerbated by the effects of climate change.

People feel increasingly exposed and unprotected in a society socially divided by the political class and steered towards economic goals without a sense of respect or empathy for others. I’ll come to this shortly.

Australia is still a lucky country, with her relatively low population and high standard of living by global standards, adequate resources and lack of militarised or hostile borders. In fact, according to the World Happiness Report 2015 we are ranked in the top 10 happiest countries in the world.  Yet as a people we are uncertain, caught in the undertow. Many of us don’t know where we’re going, we have uncertain or conflicting values and we seem to have forsaken critical thinking.  Our political leaders exploit that, and as a result we are now seeing what Doris Lessing described as, ‘an example of the price society pays for insisting on orthodox, simple-minded, slogan thinking.”

A study conducted by the Australian National University in partnership with the Social Research Centre last year found that people no longer think it matters which major party is in government, a significant decline in support for democracy, high levels of national pessimism about the future with most believing that their children’s lives will be worse than their own, and people feeling nervous all the time.

A Lowy Institute poll carried out in June this year found that Australians feel more unsafe than at any other time in a decade, seized by fears of terrorism and a bleak view of the economy.

Australia is in the grip of institutional uncertainty, informational uncertainty, financial uncertainty and environmental uncertainty. Uncertainty generates fear, and fear more often than not produces social and policy paralysis. When our institutions become impervious to change we can either obey the atmosphere, which is what those in power rely on, or we can use it as an opportunity to develop a parallel system that is responsive to the needs of people.

Great leaders have always been willing to directly confront the major anxiety held by their people. The people’s concern is their concern and what can be done for people, is done. But rather than take that approach our political leaders use political power like coins in a slot machine, aimed at producing immediately favourable outcomes for topical issues notwithstanding often questionable, illegitimate and unaccountable authority.

The policies of the major parties perpetuate unemployment, ignorance and poverty, and politicians pass legislation the effects of which they do not fully understand. The capacity for independent analytical thinking, and accepting independent information and experience that does not reflect their own ideological position, requires a maturity, sensitivity and restraint that many in politics do not have.

Political points are awarded not for wisdom on issues but for performance in the game. Winning is the only test of achievement. This and not much else is the essence of modern leadership, a rivalry of despotism and slogan benders.

These shortcomings aren’t lost on the wider community, including the business and financial sectors.  The Reserve Bank Governor recently said, “The impediments are in our decision-making processes and, it seems, in our inability to find political agreement”, and his deputy Philip Lowe confirmed that ‘Further improvement in our national balance sheet requires us to invest in both physical and human capital. And it requires us to come up with new ideas and better ways of doing things. ’

But better ways of doing things requires pressure to be brought to bear on capital and government power structures. In his book, The Rights of Man, Thomas Paine wrote about the rights the English Parliament possessed by delegation and the rights they set up by assumptions, the latter being what he strenuously opposed. But now, as in 1688, our political leaders are still doing the same thing: they use theatrical exaggerations for facts, claim mandates they haven’t been given, appropriate more and more power and offer the public no more than resistance to progressive policies on social equality, human rights, financial reforms and environmental protection.

We are left wondering how, by whom and to what end we are governed. Nearly 3 million Australians who either didn’t enrol to vote, didn’t show up or voted informally have come to accept that their vote is no longer effective not only because they feel disenfranchised by the decision making process but because they can’t vote out a swill of unaccountable, illegitimate, self-serving, power brokers in pursuit of profit who week by week, month by month, year by year, exercise a growing influence over our lives.

Corporations are a major source of institutional uncertainty. The Lowy Institute poll I referred to earlier also found that people no longer  believed that democracy is the best form of government mainly because it was serving vested interests rather than those of the majority. There is a deep symbiotic relationship between large corporations and our political leaders based on shared power and shared reward.

The Australian voters’ concerns are not unfounded. In their March paper, ‘Rising Inequality: A Benign Outgrowth of Markets or a Symptom of Cancerous Political Favours?’ economists Gigi Foster and Paul Frijters found that over 80 per cent of the wealthiest Australians have made their fortunes via political connections rather than via innovative businesses,  in areas like property, mining, banking, superannuation and finance. They have been aided by ‘favourable property re-zonings, planning law exemptions, mining concessions, labour law exemptions, money creation powers and mandated markets of many stripes.’ This, of course, is at the expense of everyone else who actually work to earn their income and who pay their ‘fair share of tax along with high bank fees, high mortgage costs, high school fees, high health care costs, high legal costs, high food prices’ and so on.

In May John Menadue, former secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet , wrote that ‘Australia’s capacity to tackle important public issues – such as climate change, growing inequality, tax avoidance, budget repair, an ageing population, lifting our productivity and our treatment of asylum seekers – is diminishing because of the power of vested interests, with their lobbying power to influence governments in a quite disproportionate way.’

To illustrate this phenomenon we need look no further than the the big four banks. They outweighed the mining sector in corporate donations to the major political parties in the lead-up to the last election.

We know that the banks have deliberately approved large quantities of unverified, unaffordable mortgage loans to low income borrowers and have been caught up in rigging interest rates, costing the country billions of dollars. They regularly make the news because of financial planning scandals which have affected more than a million Australians, land grabs and backing companies involved in illegal and unethical practices, and just as regularly in announcing record profits.

In 2013 a Senate inquiry recommended a royal commission into the financial planning industry but the recommendations have been ignored by the Abbott government. A Greens push for a royal commission into misconduct in the finance sector failed because both the Labor Party and the Abbott government refused to support it.

With that in mind it is interesting that Zurich’s Polytechnic Institute mapped ‘The Network of Global Corporate Control’ in 2011 and discovered that the most powerful and interconnected corporations in the world are almost all financial institutions, mainly in the U.S. and the U.K. It is also worth remembering that Australia’s banks go abroad to raise funding in international capital markets, which is to say from those who effectively control the world.

UK economist Ann Pettifor pointed out in 2011 that ‘Foreign bankers lend to Australian banks by borrowing from their own central banks – at rates of 1 per cent or less….In other words, foreign private bankers are leaning on their taxpayer-backed central banks to make a quick and lucrative buck at the expense of Australians.’ According to Pettifor, by borrowing in global capital markets, banks attracted funds into Australia which added to inward investment flows into the mining sector, forcing up the exchange rate and the relative cost of Australian labour and products and services.

On a more directly visible level, is it any wonder that Australians are uncertain about their economic future?  We’ve now got upwards of 15 per cent of our available labour force not working in one way or another, either because of unemployment or under-employment. Youth unemployment is significantly higher. The wages growth of those who do have work is so low that it has slipped below the inflation rate. Forty per cent of Australia’s workforce of almost 12 million is employed on a casual or contract basis.  Top earners are pulling in five times as much as those at the bottom and Australia’s richest nine individuals have a net worth greater than 4.54 million people.

The gender pay gap has hit a record high here and 2.2 million people are living below the poverty line in Australia, with close to 600,000 of them children. Australian households are holding three times as much debt on average than they did 25 years ago with many not confident they will have enough savings to last if unemployed for three months.

And how secure is our country’s financial position? Consider that Australia has a sub-prime debt market but we are ignorant of its extent.  Banks are, of course, the intermediaries between foreign lenders and Australia’s spenders. The banks have mediated the private household debt, borrowing short and lending long, so if there is a worldwide recession, banks could be called to pay up with dire effects for their local borrowers and probably the public coffers.

But the net effect is that even though we’re more indebted, we’re saving more because we’re uncertain and people are looking for security in the present rather than building for the future.  We’re now witnessing many young people abandoning any hope of buying a house,  reconciled to the fact that their generation will no longer enjoy higher living standards than their parents’ generation.

Despite the fact that Australians are feeling financially stretched, the 2014 Federal Budget demonstrated how brutally the Abbott Government was prepared to ramp up the pressure by slashing spending in health, education, culture and social services.  Its policies were guaranteed to lead to high unemployment and social division.

Our political leaders continue to ignore the fact that investment now buys financial products of no social value, money which don’t end up in the real economy funding innovative start-ups, specialised manufactures and non-resources tradeable industries for export,  and supporting job creation.

The real economy  needs increased funding for university research and local development combined with “productivity raising reform”.  Instead, we see cuts and freezes and more threatened cuts.  Spending on science, research and innovation this year is now only 0.56 per cent of GDP.

Notwithstanding that almost 40 per cent of Australian jobs that exist today have a moderate to high likelihood of disappearing in the next 10 to 15 years due to technological advances yet we still see 70% of young Australians getting their first job in roles that will either look very different or be completely lost to automation. With more sticks than carrots being used to get people into work but no plan in sight, assurances that our political leaders are focused on jobs and growth ring hollow to an increasingly uncertain population.

Instead the focus is on things like politically-driven foreign military interventions because the fear of one’s neighbours can be usefully exploited and an illusion of positive directed leadership can be created.  The National Security Committee of the cabinet has already asked for a list of national-security-related things that could be announced weekly between now and the election. When it comes to National Security the Abbott government and the Opposition are prepared to use every part of the pig, including the squeal, for domestic political advantage.  And one shouldn’t overlook that some of Australia’s banks have made significant investments in US defence companies, giving them a significant return on their investments when the war drums beat, the hawks squawk and the moguls moan.

And the desire for “free markets” rather than concern for the well being of ordinary Australians is the focus of international trade agreements. The way they are negotiated in secret with the participation of big business and financial institutions is further evidence of the preparedness of our political leaders to dance with the devil. They kowtow to a set of interests tired of having to deal with workers’ rights or human rights or environmental regulations and who wish to usurp the judiciary and circumscribe a good part of a country’s legislative and executive powers in order to replace them with their self-selected arbiters and experts.  As author Susan George puts it, “Democracy is a slow process, and they have no patience with that.”

On the political front, history reveals to us how short-lived ideas are. Our parliamentary democracy is an idea that may also become obsolete. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that through technological advances and social change polls will be held to vote on issues and not simply elections to choose between parties and politicians. Politicians naturally violently oppose any such divestments of their powers, but as the means becomes available they will have to justify their preference for an antiquated representative democracy rather than an issue based real democracy.

I have commented on some of the current institutional aspects of our economy and government that cause me concern and that highlight the need for change. The next question is, “Where does that change come from?”

People’s values are the main determinant of social change. The development of values requires careful thought, education with balanced instruction and honesty in the collection and distribution of unsanitised, reliable information.

In the poorly made 1988 science-fiction film ‘They Live’ the population had to resort to wearing a pair of special Hoffman sunglasses to enable them to distinguish between reality and orchestrated lies designed to keep them distracted and in the dark.  Well we don’t all need to don the Hoffman sunglasses to do that now.  In 2010 the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism found that nearly 55% of newspaper stories analysed were driven by some form of public relations. In 2006 a Roy Morgan survey of journalists found that more than half claimed they were unable to be critical of the media organisation they worked for, 38 per cent reported they had been instructed to comply with the commercial position of the company for which they worked and 32 per cent said they felt obliged to take into account the political views of their proprietor. In 2004 Roy Morgan  found that 73 per cent of journalists surveyed said that media proprietors use their outlets to “push their own business and or political interests to influence the national debate”.

Couple that with the explosion of informative drivel that has occurred in the last 20 years of our internet based existence and we must be close to realising Aldous Huxley’s fear that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance and that as a consequence we would be reduced to passivity, egoism and low level mindlessness.

As for the requirement for education, it’s hard to ignore Doris Lessing’s warning that we cannot expect a government to say to our children, ‘You are going to  have to live in a world full of mass movements, both religious and political, mass ideas, mass cultures.  Every hour of every day you will be deluged with ideas and opinions that are mass produced, and regurgitated, whose only real vitality comes from the power of the mob, slogans, pattern thinking. You are going to be pressured all through your life to join mass movements, and if you can resist this, you will be, every day, under pressure from various types of groups, often of your closest friends, to conform to them. But you are going to be taught how to examine these mass ideas, these apparently irresistible pressures, taught how to think for yourself, and to choose for yourself.’

Should our schools be political and economic institutions of indoctrination through which all must pass to achieve status in society, or should they prepare our children for the challenges they will face, encourage interest and creativity, give a sense of personal and cultural values and develop a sense of community  – the feeling that at some point the special interest, even if it is yours, must give way to the general interest?  Democratic education involves a sharp awareness that those who resist the general interest must themselves be resisted.

The late French Resistance fighter and diplomat Stephane Hessel describes a democracy as a place where the privileged are not the ones to make the decisions, but where the underprivileged rise to a status where they are normal human beings and human citizens with their freedoms and their rights. To Hessel when this ceases to be the case then it is proper for young people to find the things that they will not accept, that outrage them and fight against them nonviolently, peacefully, but determinedly.

Dangerous consequences follow when political leaders and unaccountable power forget moral principles in an age of uncertainty. Production of uncertainty and insecurity by the economically and politically powerful shapes the conditions of our lives. That is why the Dali Lama urges the present generation to attempt a renewal of basic human values. He calls for a revolution in our commitment to and practice of universal humanitarian values and encourages humanitarian and religious leaders to strengthen the existing civic, social, cultural, educational and religious organisations to revive human and spiritual values and where necessary, create new organisations to achieve these goals.

And what are our values?

I think values are inherent moral features of a person’s framework of thought that they have developed over time, often their whole lives, whereas principles are to a degree more formal manifestations of values that dictate or guide how people do things, and how they behave.  They come from values but principles are more like norms of conduct that manifest the values that people have.

Studies have shown that basic personal values serve as standards for judging all kinds of behaviour, events and people, and underlie all attitudes and opinions. They organise and give coherence to core political values.  Basic personal values serve as anchors for core political values, and how political actions measure up to a person’s values determines what they think of those actions and of the actors themselves.  Those values thus influence voting behaviour.

The disenchantment of so many voters with Australian politics and politicians is a reflection of the divergences between what is happening there and what voters think should be happening according to the values they hold. One classic demonstration of this was the popular reaction to the Abbott government’s 2014 budget, an outrageous affront to the average Australian’s sense of community responsibility and of a fair go to those less well off.   In an age when neo-liberal individualism – we used to call it selfishness – has been steadily inculcated into popular thinking the breadth and strength of the public backlash, based on core personal values, was both surprising and heartening. And the government’s backpedalling since then, motivated not by repentance but by the fear of not being re-elected, demonstrates how commonly held personal values can coalesce and rise as a popular force to counter government actions that offend them.

A second, more timely example is last Friday’s Operation Fortitude fiasco in Melbourne.  The suggestion that Border force and Victoria Police officers would conduct random visa checks on the streets of Melbourne prompted immediate widespread public protests that led to the operation being cancelled. The operation as initially outlined was an outrage in any free country, and probably generated extra heat here because of the Abbott Government’s militarisation of our customs and immigration department into the gun-slinging Australian Border Force in July this year.  Once again the personal values of those who protested and who spoke out swelled to the surface, although this time much more explicitly in response to a specific affront; once again the reaction represented commonly held community values; once again the Government backed down, and once again is still back-peddling.

These examples show how critical our common personal values are if we are to promote those values as social norms and implement them to preserve our freedoms. They unify us against unfair and unjust encroachments, usually by governments.

The need for fostering these values, and encouraging people to stand up for them, should be self-evident from these examples. As an aside, one wonders how Operation Fortitude might have proceeded had the citizens of Melbourne not rallied so powerfully against it.

The fight for freedom, equality and a sustainable future for our children requires an intellectual fight which will be won or lost on the educational and cultural fronts before it can be fought on the political front. We need to foster the development of sound personal value systems that reflect common decency and humanity, and we need to encourage people to articulate and stand up for those values.  If our basic personal values can come to the fore, and if politicians know that policies or actions inconsistent with them will be met with popular protest and resistance, then we are likely to see long term changes in the political atmosphere. That requires our intellectuals, complexity theorists, artists, satirists, writers and visionaries to slice through the received wisdom, through contrived behavioural codes and moral divisions, and be the bloodless catalyst to open our minds, to show us alternatives, to reveal our values and to unite us in the way forward.

The ability to distinguish right from wrong based on our common values, and the willingness to stand up for what is right with the personal courage that Juanita Nielsen demonstrated all those years ago, which we continue to admire and respect, are the keys to overcoming fear and the feeling of powerlessness in this age of uncertainty in which we live.

Copyright Kellie Tranter 2015

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