Opinion

John Hewson
The politics of the greater good

It’s taken a long time but the concept of the “greater good” – the sense of a shared destiny, of shared interests, collective purpose, a common future – is finally returning to our politics. Largely this is the result of the need to build community support for lockdowns, various other restrictions on our lifestyle and for vaccinations in response to the Delta strain of Covid-19.

The concept usually relates to asking for difficult shifts in behaviour that might normally be resisted by each individual, the impact of which is argued to be overwhelmingly beneficial to at least the majority of individuals. It presupposes acceptance of standards of individual behaviour and acceptance of responsibility.

Over several decades the concept has been lost as our politics has become increasingly self-absorbed, focused on the interests of individual politicians, parties and their donors and mates. Our politicians have developed a reputation for having their “snouts in the trough” – cheating on their expenses and otherwise exploiting their claimed “entitlements”, stacking branches, even paying for party memberships to ensure sustained political support. Our governments have willingly spent obscene amounts of money in their own perceived political interest, trying to buy or shore up votes in particular seats to win or sustain government. Accountability is a fundamental requirement for the effectiveness of our democracy. It is not a choice, as Scott Morrison would have us believe, but an essential ingredient of good government.

The tolerance for and acceptance of bad political behaviour has to some extent mirrored a lowering of behavioural standards in the broader Australian community. I have a successful business friend who expressed concern to me recently that those that seem to be “winners” in business have mostly “gamed the system” to their advantage. We have also seen a serious decline in the truth standards of much of the mainstream press.

The concept of the greater good is obviously not new. It has been referenced and relied on throughout history by a host of political leaders and even more recently in popular culture, featuring in the Harry Potter books. The concept was used by Gellert Grindelwald to justify his horrific actions in the Wizarding War of 1940, whereby he constructed a prison to house those who opposed him. As ridiculous as this might seem, I do recall George W. Bush’s reliance on Guantanamo Bay.

The greater good has a base in Immanuel Kant’s concept of consequential ethics, whereby an action is ethically right if the net result is positive in terms of increased happiness or utility. Morrison, the premiers and their health advisers have all been at pains to encourage effective collective action in response to the Delta strain, using the promise of “freedom” from restrictions and the possibility of a return to a “normal lifestyle”. They have enforced significant penalties for disobedience and breaches of health orders.

Morrison has gone somewhat further, making this an essential element of a re-election strategy in which he intends to identify his response to the virus and his vaccine rollout as the only pathway to life beyond Covid-19. However, the message has been confused by the government as one hinging on individual interest rather than collective interest. It is further confused by the government’s shifting priorities, from a focus on eradication to suppression to, finally, having to accept the need to “live with the virus”.

Morrison’s greater good is one that says the broader Australian community shouldn’t worry because majority vaccination will protect it from serious illness and death as our borders are opened and the cases mount. It is not a greater good defined by sacrifice and service; it is defined as an effort to get what you already want, and the good is for the people who are benefited by this rather than those who might suffer, the ones who might be infected as we open up with incomplete vaccination rates. For Morrison the good always goes to the greatest number of people, even if that is only the slim majority of so-called “quiet Australians” required to hold office. The greater good is what’s good for him.

Now that our politics is beginning to think in terms of this concept of a greater good, however, isn’t it about time our politicians recognised the greater good in dealing with some of the important policy issues and challenges that they have ignored or kicked down the road over recent decades?

Our politics used to be thought of as a contest of ideas, of alternative policies to move our nation forward. The so called “vision thing” was important to this, where each party was expected to set out its own vision for the nation and the policies it would use to deliver it. In these terms, much of the debate is focused on the so-called “winners” and “losers”. Obviously, this created the possibility for scare campaigns on particular issues. I can certainly vouch for the effectiveness of such campaigns on the GST and health policy.

Unfortunately, the major parties resist the need to spell out a “vision thing”. Instead, they are focused on the “small target” electoral strategy, minimising the opportunity for their opponents to run an effective scare campaign against the policies they might have to improve the country.

Indeed, it has become an unfortunate feature of our adversarial politics that parliamentary question time is now dominated by “Dorothy Dixer” questions where the focus of the question will usually be on a particular policy of the government’s, before there inevitably is an “add on” at the end asking “is the government aware of any alternatives?” This easily becomes a platform from which to bag the other side and restate what is already being done rather than what might be. Australian voters deserve more maturity from our political leaders than this.

Indeed, I suggest that most Australians would expect a degree of bipartisanship on the big issues and challenges, with the government and opposition prepared to work together to develop and implement solutions in our national interest.

Climate change is a classic example. As difficult as it was for Julia Gillard to change her position on carbon pricing from a pre-election commitment that “there will be no carbon tax under the government I lead” to actually introducing a price on carbon, the change was necessary. Still it provided then opposition leader Tony Abbott with an opportunity to destroy her government and effectively destroy a decade worth of hope that an effective climate policy might be developed.

Gillard was making a decision that perfectly encapsulated the idea of the “greater good”. The evidence for this is that she was the one making a sacrifice to announce it. Instead of honouring the greater good, Abbott and the leaders who have followed ensured we became the global climate laggard that we are seen as, ducking our domestic and international responsibilities and forgoing the opportunity to lead the global climate debate that would be overwhelmingly in our national interest.

Morrison’s new focus on the greater good – warped as the sentiment is – might now effectively be used to address climate change. In a sense, we should all be impressed by how well, and how quickly, we have adjusted our behaviour in response to the pandemic – as individuals, households, businesses, governments and institutions.

In these terms, this can be seen as something of a dress rehearsal for the shifts in behaviour that may be required for an effective response in addressing the climate challenge – changing the way we live, the way we work, the way we travel, the way we entertain, the way we shop, the way we save and how quickly we have accepted an expanded role for government.

The challenge here for Morrison is to recognise the significance of this opportunity and to set out clear transition pathways sector by sector – power, transport, agriculture, buildings and industrial processes – to create a low carbon Australia over the next two to three decades. This approach would provide an effective narrative for the commitments Morrison will need to make at the COP26 scheduled for Glasgow in November.

Beyond the climate challenge there are many big structural issues that have been left to drift, most notably proper recognition and the granting of an effective Voice to the First Australians and to deal effectively with the extent of their continuing and unjustifiable disadvantage. The First Australians have done their part and provided a pathway in the form of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Other issues screaming out for urgent reform include mental illness, including child mental illness; the NDIS; and tax and welfare reform. These issues could be addressed by effective leadership that recognises the greater good rather than adhering to the shallowness of self-interest and the desire for political survival.

Nobody expects Morrison to hold a hose or draw up a syringe, just to lead on important issues, the resolution of which would clearly be to the greater good of our nation.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 28, 2021 as "The politics of the greater good".

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John Hewson is a professor at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy and former Liberal opposition leader.