What about a review of the state of our society (rather than a plan for the coming year)?

I was not transfixed either by the Prime Minister or by the Leader of the Opposition as they set out their visions for 2013. The message seemed to be the need for growth in the economy, good management, and better infrastructure, the emphases differing a little according to whom you were hearing.  It was as though we do have just about a perfect society, for which a little tweaking is all that is required. Or that all that is required is more jobs and/or more money. Oh, and keeping boat-people out.

Is that really the case? I don’t think so. As I have said before, we Australians are on average at least three times wealthier than our parents and grandparents wère in 1950, but we are not three times happier, nor is our society three times better. I can tick off all the ways in which Australia today is a better society in which to live, if you have no choice as to your personal situation (that is, whether you are male or female, Aboriginal or European, Christian or Muslim, and so on). There are many of them, and I devoted a book to them a few years ago (What was it all for? The Reshaping of Australian Society, Allen & Unwin, 2005).

But, having done that, I can still point to lots of areas in which Australia could be improved as a human society: the condition of Aboriginal people, the level of youth suicide, the development of education as a consumption item, the mismatch between needs and capacity in health services, road gridlock in our big cities, gang warfare in Sydney and Melbourne, and so on. Whose responsibility are these issues?

They can’t just be left to ‘government’ because they involve us, as citizens and as people going about their lives, making careers, building families, buying houses — and taking Australia, its environment and its human society for granted, as a kind of backdrop. Missing from what our political leaders say, much of the time, is any clue to the kinds of Australian values that should permeate our society, govern how Australians behave, and set out the real tasks for government.

In default, I’ll offer my own, in the hope that by doing so others will offer others, or argue with mine.

I’ll start with ‘respect for others’, whoever they are. In my youth there was considerable tension between Catholics and Protestants. That has gone. Women had a distinctly second-class status in our society, and that is passing. Migrants were ‘reffos’ or ‘Balts’. They too are now part of the wider society, as are many Aboriginal people. But we are still too prone dismissively to categorise people who are unfamiliar to us. And large organisations sometimes behave as though their staff were of no consequence, and much less important than the bottom line.

A second is ‘personal responsibility’. My feeling is that Australians are rather too prone to find that when things go wrong it is someone else’s fault, as though there is some kind of entitlement for us to be happy and healthy and well off. That sentiment leads to ‘compo’, envy, court cases about falls on footpaths, and instructions to government to fix things for us. It is part of the cause of the health services problem. Another way of expressing the value is ‘self-reliance’, an attribute that we admire in others. It is hard to live by when there are so many inducements to seek assistance from others.

My third, enough for today, is ‘generosity of spirit’. There is a good deal of that about, and it underlies our strong voluntary sector. You see it best when there is a disaster. There is less generosity at the ordinary level of assistance to those close by who are in need, especially when they are ‘different’ in some way. We tend to expect them to show self-reliance.

Were these qualities in ourselves in much greater abundance the tasks of our governments would be much simpler, we would need much less regulation, welfare expenditure would be much reduced, and our taxes would be lower. We have a ‘nanny state’ in part because too many of us take a long time to become a real adult, and feel the need for a kindly, supportive parent figure in our government. And political parties, whether in government or out of it, are anxious to fill that need. It is, after all, how they get to be elected, and how they stay in power.

So it is not surprising that neither Ms Gillard nor Mr Abbott asked us to grow up and stop pestering government with our ‘needs’. It was not in their short-term interest to do so. But I rather think that it is in the long-term interest of all of us that we see citizenship for what it is: a responsibility to live with respect for one another, recognising how important and useful our diversity is, to live in a responsible and self-reliant fashion, and to help others where they need our help.

Then government can do what it ought to do, which is to look after those things which we cannot do for ourselves. There’ll always be that need.

And a Happy New Year to all those who come here to read and think — and disagree!

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