Throughout the world’s written history Emperors, Kings, dictators, political and community leaders and philosophers searched and struggled to form systems of government. They experimented with new rules and laws. Those we most admire preserved a cultural value system for the people of the time that built on legacies from past generations. Revolutions and coups were usually led by potential leaders arguing they could offer better governance for the people. In many instances traditions and values that had been thought essential to the culture and social cohesion of a society were discarded by the new leaders who promised a better way of doing things. Those we remember best found a better way of governing such as implementing laws for an improved justice system or equality for the working class. However most great leaders through history have in common a desire to educate the young about the values considered important to their civil society. Great leaders understand a legacy left through rules and laws based on proven values that work for the common good is more important than wielding power.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples passed on the things they thought fundamentally important to their communities through storytelling and songs. For over 60,000 years they shared with their children values which were based on a spirituality deeply entrenched in the land, the environment and the abundant animals, birds, plants and sea life around them. Through kinship based tribal communities they survived in the harshness of a land of frequent fires, droughts and floods. The British arrived in the late 1700s bringing a heritage based on their own story of the development of Western civilisation, a Judeo Christian based moral value system and thousands of years of cultural traditions.
Australians today perhaps take for granted the fundamental values and principles of our nationhood such as freedom of speech, thought and opinion. Our democracy encourages ordinary Australians to have our say regarding what should be the new rules and laws brought into being through the legislation processes of our parliaments. Through political parties, the media, artists, authors, musicians and poets, opinion makers, teachers in our schools and universities and family chats around the dinner table, we regularly discuss and voice the meaning and relevance of shared citizenship and moral values that might be brought into legislation and rules by our parliaments to make our nation a better place to live. At this time of the coronavirus pandemic, perhaps even more than in past national crises because we have better daily media communications, many want to be involved and have a say. What are the values that unite us today? Have they changed in the decades since our Constitution was written? Do we need more facts so that we can feel we have the knowledge required to understand why and what our leaders are doing and advising?
CEFA is using this time to reflect on the principles that underlie contemporary Australian governance and the citizenship and values that underpin it. Funded by the generous Australian Government grant to develop Stage 2 of the Australian Constitution Centre, we are preparing teaching and learning resources that support civics and citizenship for students in years 4 to 10 in Australian schools. But how best to communicate to and reach the modern child? What are the essential stories we should pass on to them? What are the fundamental principles for a civics and citizenship education program that builds understanding and resilience so our youth will come together at times of great need, look out for each other, support friends and family and people not so well off. What knowledge will focus us on what we think are the very best things about our Australian way of life and the values that underpin it. And what new rules do we need from our leaders of government that will ensure we come out of this crisis strengthened and as united communities? And most important of all can we bring through a new generation of young Australian voters who will trust, appreciate and respect the institutions and people in Australian governance who must lead us through today and any crises of the future.
The 2020 coronavirus pandemic gives us an opportunity to examine the values that underpin our Constitution. We are all thinking about courage, endurance, support, respect for each other, and obedience to the laws enacted by our democratically elected Parliaments. It is such values that have resulted in our nation’s spirit surviving through wars, depressions and pandemics. We remember the great Prime Ministers and leaders and institutions who took our nation through earlier crises and demonstrated the guidance, resilience and strength our democracy depends on. And we hope the current leaders we have elected to our parliaments are up to doing a good job.
Yet prior to the pandemic we at CEFA brought out report after report showing the declining trust in our institutions and political leaders and in our democracy (you can read our report here). Are we now at a crossroads? Or can we use the pandemic to really focus on the values and principles we want to pass on to our children.
The spirit of ANZAC Day
The very best of our great Australian values were on display last Saturday. Australians came out at dawn in their thousands as never before on the morning of April 25. In small household groups and as individuals they stood watching the sun rise. In driveways and on street footpaths they stood in vigil with torches, candles, trumpets, lapel poppies and war hero medals that would normally have been waiting ready and polished for the Anzac Day marches. Media reported neighbours and Street communities sighting each other for the very first time. The symbols and services normally provided by institutions were supplied by individual people. Yet the heavy social distancing rules imposed by our governments were observed throughout. People seemed to draw on further values that many of us must be considering as also learnt from the past such as patience, compassion, discipline and selflessness. Across the nation as individual household groups we remembered the Anzacs as heroes and defenders of our nation. Yet we obeyed the many heavy new coronavirus rules and regulations imposed on us by our Governments.
Defending Australian lives at a time of great conflict is at the very heart of our nationhood. One of the spurs to federation was the desire to ensure that Australia could properly defend itself with a single, centrally commanded defence force, rather than the inadequate forces that existed in the different colonies. The Commonwealth was given power in relation to defence and quarantine in a time of pandemic. Section 119 of the Constitution gave the Commonwealth the responsibility of protecting the States against invasion, and against internal violence if the States requested it.
We federated under a Constitution that established the institutions and powers to deal with crises. Too soon after federation in 1901, the federal government was challenged by the need to respond to World War I. Our Constitution united us in marshalling the economic, labour and defence resources to engage in a World War. However, our first Anzacs returned home in 1919 to the world-wide outbreak of the Spanish flu. Nearly 40 per cent of our population of just over 5 million were affected and 15,000 people died. Ninety years ago the world was again in the grip of a national and world crisis the Great Depression. Complete rethinking of policies and principles and unprecedented bipartisan state and federal relations were considered by our leaders. And 75 years ago Anzac Day was again marked differently in the last year of World War II. Our national character trait is to stand together and help each other in times of crisis. Now we are isolated by coronavirus we continue to stand together in whatever ways we are allowed. The challenge will be how to educate our children on the lessons we are learning and those parts of our history we consider essential for our nation’s future.
Coping with the restrictions on our lives
Of course there are people who have not yet adjusted to our new coronavirus normal. Many must still be in a heightened state of anxiety due to lost jobs, reduced incomes, sickness and the loss of loved ones who they can’t mourn even at a funeral. Some already had no respect for rules or the authority of governance. And some have no understanding of personal responsibility let alone good citizenship and enduring community values. Can we reach such people through the crisis so they survive and perhaps come out the other end understanding some of the benefits of communal citizenship?
The new pandemic rules imposed by our Governments are seen by some to be harsh, inconsistent, confusing and restrictive on our normal freedoms. The thousands flocking to Sydney Beaches and flouting the social distancing rules were just as visually confronting when seen on the media as the Anzac Day dawn Street community vigils were moving.
The Prime Minister and Chief Government Health Advisors are urging us to download the coronavirus new app. It seems millions of us are doing so. Yet many are frightened of it as an intrusion on privacy rights and a restriction on personal freedom. Freedom of decision making is highly valued by Australians.
Here at CEFA we have started to examine the good things that are happening within our communities. Will some of the new imposed rules become permanent as they are considered for the betterment of our communities? Most Australians are doing their bit to stop the spread of coronavirus and save lives. Our governments and institutions have stepped up during this period. Politicians are answering questions at press conferences to keep the public informed.
Former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard in an article in the weekend Australian April 25-26 stated:
There’s always a tendency when something big like this happens that everything we’ve had in the past has to be put behind us and we have to start again without it, but that’s not the case…. I am concerned about holding on to the good things we have … the things that work and to discard the things that don’t.
Prime Minister Morrison and the State Premiers are displaying a working federalism never seen before through the national cabinet and we are promised it will continue operating for Australians after the pandemic ends. But what about us, the people who will vote for our representatives in the next parliaments. We won’t only vote for them on our judgement of their performance through the coronavirus pandemic. We will also want to know what values they consider are important for a future Australia and that these values will influence their laws and policies.
What is a social compact?
These shared values underpin our social compact. This is an understanding about the relationship between the people and the government. What do we expect from governments in the policies and laws that they make?
Different people expect different things from government. People from all parts of the political spectrum have some overlapping views of the world, but in many instances their expectations of government are very different. Should we have a small government or a large government? Should we leave everything to the market or should there be some government protections? How do we treat people who cannot get jobs? How should the tax system operate? How should federalism work in our health systems? Who should be paying tax and how much? Should the Government look after the vulnerable, the mentally ill, the disabled and the elderly, or should this be a matter left to families or charities?
Because of our party system, these questions and our social compact wax and wane as government changes. But as Emerita Professor Carol Johnson wrote earlier last week the Keynesian policies that are currently being implemented are not new and it is thought the first time they were used in Australia was by the United Australia Party treasurer Percy Spender, when Robert Menzies was Prime Minister. As Professor Johnson states:
It has taken a pandemic to transform our politics. Who would have thought a Coalition government would substantially increase unemployment benefits or pay the wages of many workers facing unemployment due to the coronavirus pandemic? As they massively increased government debt in order to save both lives and the economy, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg effectively declared that ideology was dead.
Respect, equality, a fair go, no one left behind, mateship, doing the right thing, compromising, tolerance and honesty we would probably all agree, need to be taught to our children. We have seen them on display throughout the coronavirus emergency. Overall, most people are obeying the government rules and staying home. The Federal Government has produced a business and employee survival package in JobKeeper and JobSeeker so that most Australians have sufficient income to survive. The people are being informed regularly of new policies by our elected leaders who hope to encourage trust in the democratic process. Politicians are showing the people respect, as well as to each other.
Some commentators believe our values have been missing for a while. They are back on full display now. How do we ensure that they remain so after the crisis is over? As Paul Kelly writes in the Australian:
The abnormal is Australia’s new normal, but only for a while. What is more important is that the nation in the fullness of its social, economic and spiritual life does not revert post-crisis to the old pre-2020 politics. The past cannot be fully restored and that creates a new opportunity — to reinvent and improve upon the past.
Time to get back to a consensus?
As CEFA writes lessons for the Australian Constitution Centre in support of the Australian Curriculum we are finding many new topics we have not yet considered for publication. In year 7 the valued concept of consensus as it works in our governments and civil society is taught. So, what is a consensus? The Cambridge Dictionary says:
a generally accepted opinion or decision among a group of people
The Oxford dictionary says:
an opinion that all members of a group agree with
consensus politics (= that people in general agree with)
Over the past couple of decades we have watched with alarm the fighting within the political parties over leadership. Previously the arguments between political parties were understood as a strength of our system as they represented a contest of ideas to find the best policies and offered choices to electors. But in more recent times personal ambition has sometimes overtaken good policy development in motivating our leaders.
Each of us has a democratic say about who should form government. And we expect our leaders to find consensus and make laws that are in the best interests of our nation and for the future generations. Consensus does not mean getting everything you want. It means finding a middle ground where all can accept that the outcome is fair and reasonable and to the overall benefit of the country. It requires compromise and preparedness to seek out an outcome for the common good.
The recent coronavirus pandemic has shown, through the medium of the national cabinet, that in a time of emergency consensus can be reached between leaders of different parties with different political and philosophical views, but each with an abiding interest in protecting the Australian people and acting in their best interests.
That consensus has also been supported by the Australian people, who have accepted that at the moment our individual rights have to take a backseat to rules put in place to protect our lives, especially those of some of the most vulnerable in our community, such as the elderly and those with existing health problems. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is that in a highly polarised political world, consensus can still be achieved and our efforts can be extremely successful when we work together for the common good.
Finding the right balance in the post pandemic period will still be challenging. But consensus can still be found, based upon our shared values and history. As our children start to get back to school, and as our teachers start to pilot our Australian Constitution Centre civics and citizenship resources, we here in CEFA will need to continue to reflect on what are the important stories and values we believe essential for the enduring principles of our great nation to be preserved for future generations. Restoring trust and respect for our leaders in government will be an added bonus once our civics and citizenship education programs are implemented across Australian schools.
Image Source: © Commonwealth of Australia 2020
Chief of Navy Australia, Vice Admiral Michael Noonan AO, RAN, commemorates Anzac Day 2020 at home in his driveway, with his family.
CN with his family, Captain Jan Noonan CSC and Bar, RAN, and daughters, remembered the more than 102,000 men and women who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in war, conflict and peacekeeping operations for Australia.