The bell tolls for us

First published Green Left Weekly  29/10/2003
and on the same day under the title “We must do something” in Al-Moharer
It was published in the Sri Lankan newspaper The Island on 19/1/2004, p.2.

The rise of economic fundamentalist ideas has created a sordid situation for poor people here and overseas. I will trace some of the effects of this onslaught and to point to ways in which each one of us might play a part in undermining the damaging impacts of such policies.

The areas of the society on which I shall concentrate are the industrial arena, social welfare, personal freedom, Indigenous policy, refugees/asylum seeker policy and foreign aid. I shall attempt to show that for each day we let such policies go unchallenged Australians are moving inexorably towards a day where we will find there are none to help.

Essentially the cure lies in the recognition that the pseudo-scientific appeal of economic solutions to social problems does not absolve ordinary citizens from making considered ethical judgements about the impacts that such ‘solutions’ have upon those on whom they are imposed. It also requires that citizens of Australia rediscover their belief in themselves as moral beings and hopefully such a rediscovery will lead them to act in solidarity with those whom the economic fundamentalists would have us neglect.

We can no longer turn our back and pretend that we just do not see: the marginalised, the dispossessed, those relegated to unemployment, precarious employment, or sweatshop conditions, those incarcerated in immigration concentration camps, those forced into ‘work for the dole’ programs and other exploitative ‘mutual obligations’, Indigenous Australians relegated to the margins of the society and those in the third world who are dying of preventable disease or starvation. They are there. They are not a mirage. They are real people. Their suffering is real. Not only do we have a right to assist but also we have an obligation to assist and we have the capacity to assist.

There was once a time when I may have argued that people of good will should act compassionately towards others less affluent than themselves out of a sense of noblesse oblige.  Those times have past. We have reached a time when if we don’t act to incorporate the excluded and marginalised then one by one we will become them.  The first step is realisation; the second step is to experience revulsion; and the third step is revitalisation.

The stink tanks and the Murdoch media

The Howard Government came to power partly through the combined efforts of the Liberal Party, right wing think tanks and the media’s constant attacks on the values which underpinned the Labor administration and partly because of the failure of the Labor Party to keep Chifley’s ‘Light on the Hill’ illuminated.  The economic fundamentalist agenda has slowly been incorporated into both Labor and Liberal political parties since the mid 1970s. Howard’s industrial regime, his cutbacks in public education, health and social services are simply a more ruthless application of similar policies first implements by the Fraser and Hawke/Keating Governments.

Howard’s major contribution to the political debate has been to create an amalgam of conservative and neo-liberal philosophical positions. He spelt out his particular amalgam of these positions in his 1999 Roundtable Paper; in which he explained he was going to ardently pursue economic fundamentalist industry and fiscal policies, and would take from the conservatives their repressive social policies.  What was not as clearly spelt out was his intention to ignore the conservative idea of the importance of the ‘common good’ and to usurp it with an absolute belief in the supreme importance of the self-providing individual.

With the assistance of the right wing think tanks, the Murdoch media, and Pauline Hansen he has ceaselessly waged ‘the culture wars’ against supporters of Indigenous people’s rights, decent provision for welfare recipients and justice for asylums seekers. In short he is waging a war against humanity and decency.

‘Dole bludgers’

The unemployed of Newcastle and Wollongong are not unemployed because they are ‘work shy job snobs’ they are unemployed precisely because they spent 20 plus years working for BHP in their coal mines and blast furnaces. Many ex-wharfies are unemployed because they worked for years in ports that are now closed or where the loading facilities have been Patrickised and where the stench of Lynch’s Dobermans and balaclavas still hangs in the air. The Company and the Government not only ‘downsized’ the demand for labour they downsized the morality of this nation.

Unemployed people in each and every part of this country have been subjected an economic fundamentalist nightmare. And the best that many can hope for is casualised part-time precarious employment interspersed with further bouts of unemployment. Australians are not lazy. A greater percentage of working age citizens are members of the labour force now than at any previous time in Australia’s history. Australians are eager to accept paid employment yet we have experienced consistently high levels of unemployment in this country since 1975. This is because it suits government and industry to have such high levels of available labour. Governments and industry don’t want the acrimony of the Patrick’s type showdown on the wharves if they can manage to tame the workforce with threat and innuendo.  But if the workers won’t buckle under then the promoters of the economic fundamentalist agenda won’t shy away from such violent confrontations at your workplace.

The distortion of meaning

The language is massaged and sanitised. People aren’t sacked anymore they are made redundant, downsized, provided with a 7 day weekend or whatever. The effect of getting a pink slip in the pay envelope is still the same: demoralisation, feelings of failure and inadequacy and alienation. There was a time when if this happened and the worst came to the worst unemployment benefits would be provided until a new job was found. Nowadays the economic fundamentalists demand you jump through increasingly stigmatising ‘mutual obligation’ hoops before you are deemed worthy to get the pittance they now call ‘Newstart’.

The present Prime Minister has the gall to boast that, if those for whom the Government and industry can’t or won’t find paid work are to be given a below the poverty line income support payment, “it is only fair that the unemployed give something back in return”. This is about the equivalent of throwing a dollar into a blind man’s cup and demanding that if he does not regain his sight immediately you’ll take back 80 cents.  Leading ethicists from Professor Robert Goodin of ANU to Pam Kinnear of the Australia Institute have suggested that Centrelink’s demand that the unemployed “comply or starve” is an equivalent immorality to that of the highwayman’s “comply or die”.  Pam Kinnear accuses the Prime Minister of ‘taking without giving’.

The road to immorality is paved with good intentions

Prime Minister Howard is always quick to claim virtuous intent.  After the Bringing them Home Report exposed the crime of stealing generations of Aboriginal children; Howard was eager to suggest that, whatever happened to the children, the non-Indigenous people who took the children from their families had done so “with the best of intentions”. When it comes to the reasons why his Government is imposing increasing obligations upon unemployed people, lone parents and those with disabilities Howard and Co. again claim to be doing this to assist the unemployed. In this case, he suggests that such obligations help the unemployed remain ‘job ready’, ‘maintain self-respect’ and avoid ‘welfare dependency’. At least he is not claiming his imposed obligations cure dandruff and tinea.

When good intent is just not enough, Howard appeals to superior knowledge, as he did in the case of the, yet to be found, weapons of mass destruction. He claimed superior knowledge as his justification for the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq. In the US and the UK the citizens are realising that their leaders might not have been entirely frank in the lead-up to the war in Iraq.

It is perhaps that the Australian public has been so impressed with Howard’s forthrightness on such matters as the children overboard affair, his involvement in the ethanol scandal, the SIEV X sinking and so forth that they can not bring themselves to believe that dishonest John could lie to them. Or it may be that many have become so inured to Howard’s moral turpitude that they don’t care about things unless the Government’s decisions affect them directly.

I hope it is not entirely the latter, because if it is, we are fast approaching the stage where most of my fellow citizens are like the frog in gradually heating water. That is, we will just sit there waiting to be boiled. Rather, I think it is partly we have avoided making such ethical judgements by putting them in ‘the too hard basket’ or ‘the they may know better than me basket’ or that other basket labelled ‘surely you are not saying the government would intentionally ignore our best interests’. In addition, many are compromised by their acceptance of knee-jerk short term solutions such as the mandatory detention of asylum seekers, the Pacific disillusion, the redrawing of our boundaries for the purposes of the migration act. Some may have been even stupid enough to believe that asylum seekers would pay thousands of dollars to bring their children 5,000 kilometres on leaky boats just so they could have the pleasure of throwing them overboard when the first Australian warship hove into sight. Some of course have just been baffled by the bullshit.

Sledging and wedging

There is enough of the larrikin in most of my fellow citizens to enjoy a modicum of sledging between two evenly matched teams on the oval. But the Howard Government has taken to sledging the unemployed, lone parents, the young, those with disabilities, asylum seekers, Indigenous people, the frail aged and other relatively powerless citizens. They have not done this out of any sense of sportsmanship rather they use sledging and wedging as grubby tactics to demoralise those whom they abuse and to drive a wedge between them and other citizens. Once the wedge is inserted it is easier for the Government to generate downward envy.

Those lucky enough to have a full time permanent job bemoan the fact that the Government pays the unemployed an income. They whinge that their work income is not much greater than the poverty line income of the unemployed. I suppose that it is easier to attack the relatively powerless unnamed unemployed when compared with the alternative strategy of organising with unions and fellow workers to take on a struggle with their employers to raise their salary. Smart low paid employees would campaign for more generous unemployment payments with few attached conditions for two very personal reasons. Firstly they are the employees most likely to encounter prolonged unemployment in the future and secondly if the rate of payment for unemployed people goes up so too will the minimum wage rates.

The rich frequently engage in downward envy but in a different form.  They happily, albeit ignorantly, assert the existence of hoards of dole bludgers who refuse to accept the multitude of well paid jobs that exist somewhere out there. Or they might suggest that the payment of lone parent payments ‘encourages teenage immorality’ and the breakdown of ‘family life’. Whatever their particular bitch they always conclude that such welfare payments ‘encourage welfare dependence’, ‘undermine the desire to work’, encourage ‘slough and licentiousness’, and lead governments to ‘raise unnecessary taxes to pay for them’.  They usually proffer the simplistic economic fundamentalist solution ‘cut taxes by abolishing welfare’. Then they suggest that not only will everybody live happily ever after, but because business will be so much more efficient and profitable that everyone will have a job.

Whether you are rich or low paid, the engaging in downward envy is self-defeating because it distracts your mind from addressing the real issues, which are making you unhappy, and deflects you from identifying the real source of your oppression. The Government is happy so long as it can deflect citizens’ attention from the real issues facing them. This is especially so if there are things which the Government is failing to do to improve the life of all citizens. The Howard Government has been a most vituperate sledger of the powerless and a most successful wedger of the people. It has managed to divide: city and country people, men and women, Indigenous from non-Indigenous citizens, worker from welfare recipients, even managing to have some welfare recipients competing with other welfare recipients and has succeeded in relegating asylum seekers to the brigades of the forgotten whilst they rot in concentration camps in the outback or on Nauru.

Foreign aid

The increasing wealth of this nation has been accompanied by an accelerating decrease in the amount of peaceful foreign aid we have distributed to the underdeveloped world. What is worse is that we are not alone. Many Western countries have followed similar paths.

The policies of the West have exacerbated the difficulties experienced in the underdeveloped world. There are now 500 billionaires in the world and each year 35 million people will die of starvation. There are 23 million asylum seekers and displaced people in the world. One billion people constantly live on the brink of starvation whilst many in West experience health difficulties from over-eating.

The underdeveloped world is forced into a Western controlled ‘free trade’ system that is not free but designed to exploit the underdeveloped and developing world. Fair Trade might go some way to solving many of the problems of the underdeveloped world but such policies are fiercely resisted in Washington, London, Tokyo and Paris.

This is the ethical crisis facing the world. We need to act justly so that many might just survive long enough for the developed world to come to see that it has a responsibility to lift all people in the world above the poverty line.


The economic fundamentalists suggest that efficiency is the be all and end all and that the market should be the final arbiter of good taste because it is, in some never specified way, able to come to ‘objective’ determination of ‘good’. The economic fundamentalists suggest that there is no place for moral or ethical qualms. That values get in the way of ‘objective’ decision-making. Their preoccupation with efficiency usually amounts to a fixation on target efficiency, that is, how quickly and cheaply can we chop down the last remaining stand of Wolemi Pines in this forest. For them questions about the desirability of making a species extinct are simple irrelevancies. Hence the Howard Government could, in the 2001-2002 financial year, happily impose 386,946 social security breaches on some of Australia’s poorest citizens in an effort to make social security recipients meet their alleged obligations without even wondering whether this was an effective ethically responsible manner in which to run its welfare policy.

Ethics amounts to more than a zero sum game where everyone’s values cancel out every body else’s values. Moral relativism cannot have reached such a low point that the values that sustain egalitarian social support are no more valued than those of hedonistic self-actualised dog eat dog world that so attracted the shopkeeper’s daughter. Maggie Thatcher may have asserted that “there is no such thing as society” but her assertion does not make it true let alone something for which it is worth striving.

Some lessons from history

The 17th Century liberal philosopher Thomas Hobbes described  the life that existed in Thatcher’s no society as “nasty, brutish and short”. Surely Australians in the 21stCentury can aspire to live in a social community somewhat in advance of such a Hobbesian nightmare. If we need to go back to the past to discover a moral future then let’s start with John Donne’s 1623 For whom the bell tolls

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

To Donne we might append the 19th Century writer John Ruskin assertion in Time and Tide that “The first duty of a State is to see that every child born therein shall be well housed, clothed, fed, and educated, till it attain years of discretion.” This of course would force us to look seriously at the possibility that the Howard Government’s cutting people off from any form of social security because they had failed to comply with the petty dictates of some Centrelink operative is unconscionable. Their failure to live up to international agreements on the treatment of asylum seekers that previous Australian Governments have signed and ratified would be seen as morally reprehensible. We might gain an understanding that the Howard Government’s failure to honour the internationally agreed Law of the Sea in relation to the Tampa puts every Australian seafarer at risk as well as being ethically unjustifiable.

The way forward

I am old enough to have lived through all of the stultifying 23 years of the Menzies, Holt, Gorton and McMahon Coalition Governments. But am young enough to remember the inspiration of Gough Whitlam’s It’s Time campaign. Well, it’s time again to embrace: our humanity, our compassion, our decency, our justice and our sense of commonality. It’s time for us to act in solidarity with all those less well-off than ourselves.

The last 7 years demoralising years of the Howard ascendency is coming to an end. Should enough of my fellow Australians agree with me that the demise of Howard can’t come soon enough then we can, and I believe must, spare no effort to hasten his removal from office.

The most effective way we can do this is communicating our disillusion about Howard’s divisiveness to our families, workmates, fellow travellers and anyone else who will listen. We need to get to know and communicate with asylum seekers, Indigenous Australians, people who are unemployed or in other ways presently down on their luck. We need to express our solidarity with them – to incorporate them in our lives, communities and neighbourhoods. We need to reject the failed economic fundamentalist prescriptions and the socially repressive ‘mutual obligation’ regimes. We need to accept an egalitarian future based on ethically justifiable behaviour. In addition we need to accept ourselves and our interdependence with our fellow residents of this country.  We need to campaign for fair trade and greatly increased peaceful foreign aid. We need to forego pre-emptive aggression against anyone here or overseas. Above all we need to accept that the bell tolls for us.