by Eva Cox.
Senior lecturer in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, UTS
For me the issues are not about how we set population policies but what relationships can be encouraged between people, ie what types of societies will be possible. How do we make possible futures which are both civil and sustainable? While the environment has to be considered, it is not my primary concern because we need to work towards social systems of people who want to do the right thing. Then the policy options that are needed to do well for the environment as well as for other people will be responsibly considered and acted on. People make the decisions that save and destroy environmental resources so concerns about social sustainability need to take precedence over the environmental in order to create the social preconditions that will make the sustainability of our resources, possible.
If most people have no trust of their political institutions and a general loss of trust in other people, than it is almost impossible to expect the broader population will support sustainability. We know that business and governments, on their own initiative, will not pursue policies and practices that may undermine their profits or votes. They may play lip service to propositions that there are needs to act to save resources and move in minor ways to look as though they are doing some things. If they are both operating on the conventional and currently dominant model of human nature which assumes we act from self interest, usually short term to boot, they assume that voters and consumers will be affected by price and the hip pocket nerve. By appealing to people’s perceived lowest common denominators, they create reciprocal distrust amongst their constituencies.
Trust in government, politicians, big business and financial institutions is so low that there is a gross credibility stand off which makes appeals to altruism, the common good or even common sense likely to fall on deaf ears. One danger of using fear/crisis tactics to create action is that those who believe may also assume the situation is so dire there is no appoint in acting; those who do not trust the messenger, will not hear the message; those who distrust the capacities of' the major power institutions will assume that they will not act and be mired in their own cynicism. In a democratic system the possibilities of political action and pressure are not high and likely to fail. In an autocratic system, it is difficult to see altruistic authoritarians prepared to act against their likely power brokers as no authority is absolute.
If there is a strong commitment to the maintenance of democratic forms and to making the system work, then there has to be some attention paid urgently to the loss of trust, and the cynical forms of voter/consumer manipulation that exacerbate distrust. It is therefore important to examine the factors that feed into the present political paradigms and beliefs and try to develop alternative ways of doing public policy and practice.' There are some interesting signs of shifts, coming from the market sector as some firms recognise the costs of poor reputation on their financial bottom lines. So Triple Bottom Line accounting and reporting have made some marks on the possible debates and put issues of environmental and ethical auditing on the agendas in the private sphere.
Part of the problem comes from a need to shift the broad parameters of debate so we see social and ethical connectivity as important and recognise that this is an essential part of human society. This requires a major shift from constructing social equations on the basis of self interest to basic assumptions that people are prepared to act collectively for group benefits, and, importantly, they will act or the common good if they can trust others to do so as well. If we want people to reduce their use of resources, they need to be confident that others will also be prepared to do so as well. They need to believe in the good intentions of those in power who ask them to accept the need for such changes and feel that their necessities can also be met collectively, rather than individually.
How do we change this?
How do we proceed? Where do we go from here? It is easy to be alarmist and join in the cries of ‘It’s all awful!’ of being harbingers of gloom and increasing the sense of doom. It can be quite comfortable to wear the familiar hair shirt of despair and bewail the power of those we deem responsible for the problems we face. This is often the starting and end point of many discussions amongst those who would see themselves as progressive and those see the needs for changes.
Instead of creating some sense of possibilities, such debates often reduce people to a sense of impotence, of distrust, and cynicism about possible solutions. I want to try another tack, of thinking through some possibilities that we can feed into debates and possible action. We need to think outside the present circles and squares because much of the debate at present identifies those we agree with as people like us and there is no real debate across diverse groups, as they become the enemies.
Trustworthiness and trust
A priority for policy development must be the recognition that developing politico/social cultures of trust and trustworthiness are essential, not optional.' We can see the loss of trust in our political system that has come in part from parties and politicians appealing to the lowest common denominators of the electorate. Treat the voters like self interested thugs and many will respond to this by becoming the stereotype.
We know that trusting people makes them become more trustworthy; the corollary is that distrusting them has the opposite effect. We therefore need to make policies that build on the desire of most people to ‘do the right thing’ by others as well as themselves. We need to build trust in the institutions of governance by making it clear that these will operate in ways that are deemed ethical, so they will be trusted even by those who may disagree with particular decisions. Peter Andren, after the last election told me that many of the increased votes he gathered came from those who said they disagreed with his stance on asylum seekers but wanted to be represented by someone with principles.
We also have much evidence that people will judge governments and policies by whether they seem to be fair. So even if the government wooed a particular group by denigrating another, it is possible that self interest may buy a vote but not respect. If people get privileges at the expense of other groups, it is possible that they will become anxious that the others may resent their success. You can hear that sometimes in talk on releasing the asylum seekers when people assume they will want revenge for what they have suffered. Sometimes this arises in debates on indigenous issues. So even the victors may not be comfortable in their triumphalism and they will distrust those they fear were victimised.
The promises of the future can become threats when people feel anxious about change and distrustful of those with power.' So the losses of trust in government, recorded over time in Roy Morgan polls, the loss of faith in political parties and the disappearing icons of publicly owned utilities and other services may increase choice but also anxieties. We need to understand how policy changes which reduce the sense of safety and well being in exchange for more ephemeral ‘goods’ like choice and tax cuts, may add to anxieties to the point that they become toxic.
If people are frightened then the strange, the different, the new and the risky become much harder to accommodate. While most people appear to be better of financially and other statistics show better health and education outputs, there is evidence of discontent and anxieties about the future, particularly the future out there. Most express satisfaction about their immediate environment and therefore do not respond to those that claim they are oppressed or distressed. So preaching gloom and doom at them is not useful and may be often counterproductive as it may make them feel worse, and they choose not to hear it. This is a problem for they ways that many lobby groups present their environmental messages and equally for social ones.
People need a level of optimism and a sense of the possibilities before most will sign up to any form of political actions. If their level of despair turns in deep cynicism, it may translate into either opting out, or a desire for self-protection. It is not likely to lead to empathy, generosity or a commitment to collective action. The ability of most people to see common ground with others and strangers, requires a level of trust of other people and of institutions that are not currently available. This is particularly so for those who see their lives as more vulnerable to the negative effects of change and have a limited sense of agency in terms of influencing change at both micro and more macro levels.
So how do we move the debates on, as people who are not part of the ruling elite, but with some levels of influence and power?' Our first priority must be to decide what we want, rather than what we are against. We need to offer positive proposals, which make for a fairer social system, and meet a presumed, but I think active desire, for more egalitarian, more responsible, more ethical social and political systems.
One of the questions we need to revisit is how much of a sense of security is involved in the visible and universal offerings of government services. We have moved over the last decades from assumptions that government/public services were for all to assumptions that these provided a safety net for the needy. So private health and private schooling are seen as almost the moral obligations of those who can afford them, leaving the public sphere to those who cannot afford alternatives, or can manipulate the system to suit their children. What price the loss of neighbourhood schools and the sharing of diversities these involved? So I would propose a revisiting of these areas to look at how we make it OK for all to use the public systems and do not penalise those who do by extra levies or assist8ing them to buy privilege with taxpayers’ money.
We need to consider what we have done to the social security and retirement income systems and recognise that they are both inequitable and confusing. We give too much away in subsidies for higher income superannuation, concessions for self funded retirees and other older people but have a particularly mean system for families and those who cannot find work. By failing to recognise the costs of children per se, and making money dependent on how many earners there are, or overall income we have lost the idea of horizontal equity. This means recognising that kids cost, whatever your income and that income testing payments from a relatively low income penalises second income earners.
We also fail to recognise the costs of disability as costs most of us do not face, so those who need to spend extra to manage paid work and their disability mobility needs are not able to cover costs. Why no universal allowances that recognise such costs. By putting in the idea that almost everything is income tested, we have created a distrust system that makes ‘taxpayers’ resent recipients and recipients vulnerable to effective marginal tax rates that are higher than the rich face.
This is a high taxing government but with a low tax rhetoric. We need leadership which says we will use the tax revenue to create an effective public sector. Tax is about pooling risks and not expecting us all to save for the possible costs of old age, ill health or other disasters. Buying votes with tax cuts plays into levels of self interest which can be turned to a broader interest, if directed to those expenditures people approve of. We know from surveys that hypothecated taxes for education, the environment and health are welcomed by tax payers but they distrust tax into general revenue because they distrust politicians. So maybe governments have to be prepared to tie their spending and build up trust by the transparency they commit themselves to.
The population debate is an interesting starting point as it can involve a broad group of questions.' Firstly there are questions on concepts of growth and particularly on increasing GDP. This question has been tackled by many writers, most recently by Clive Hamilton in ‘Growth Fetish’. There is much in this book with which I agree with but it has some fatal flaws in its arguments because it assumes that the decisions we make on consumption are personal rather than social and abuses people for materialism. Recognising the influence of others including advertisers does not make the shift from personal to social but recognising how lock stepped we are with others as part of a social system is a different proposition. If The Australia Institute’s intention is reduce the drive for growth, the starting point should be re-forming public policy debates away from the perceived need for individuals to take care of self and move back to assumptions that higher tax spading is another form of pooling risk and acceptable. So good public systems reduce needs to buy superannuation, private health care and private schooling which take more income than barbecues. Renovations and home improvements are forms of saving that are tax exempt. So the messages for people are that they must be self reliant and may as well be self interested and enjoy today, if they may not be able to to do later.
We need more attention on gender differences that affect the birth rate and child rearing supports, and how we deal with the questions of who has children and why. Secondly there are questions on diversity and its discontents that need to be dealt with in ways which avoid suggestions like send them all to the bush. Thirdly, I think there are ethical issues on population size and whether we have the right to sustain our own standards of living and environmental protections at the expense of others. But here we need to be careful that we do not allow the debate to be used by the racist and the scaremongers.
Fear has been used as a major political strategy by both major party groupings: at the Federal level it has been used in relation to border protection; the states by fear of crime. We have seen deliberate playing on fears as they respond to badly read focus group research and base gut instinct and use the fear to create compliance and votes. We do live in difficult times and there are threats but the question is whether playing into those fears is a dangerous strategy.' We have seen use of anti asylum seekers, anti Muslim, anti land rights, anti youth, anti dole bludgers and other such election strategies over the past two decades.
We have seen a set of debates on whether there are elites and rednecks out there with some assuming that they can identify divisions between ‘educated’ and the ‘battlers’ which justify pandering to self interest. The model has become entrenched and we find even amongst the so called elites there is a tendency to name call. For instance, the anti growth rhetoric that assumes that spending is greed fail to recognise that it may be a reflection of the same tensions above and that calls for more frugal lifestyles may add to the divides. The net results of much of these debates are anxious, distrustful, voters who have no sense of vision above the hip pocket from their leadership. No wonder uncertainty has become toxic.
So let’s talk about creating more ethical processes, of recognising that we need to look at all stakeholders’ needs and wants and how these can be fairly accommodated. We must acknowledge that we do not have the answers in terms of any utopian view of the future but we can work on making it better.' We need to recognise that grand theories have all turned out to be inadequate and that dominance by interest groups is not ethical.
Let’s reintroduce the idea of the common good and set up debates on how we can work out the best possible option on the best information available.' We need to recognise the rights of others but also our responsibilities for delivering these. Rights alone will not work but need to be linked with ways in which these can be delivered and ways of resolving conflict between these.
We need to build forums for discussion and debate where we move outside our comfort zones and seek to engage with those who may not agree with our viewpoints. I think that there are many people who are concerned about the directions we appear to be going in, and we need to find ways of talking more widely.' We need to adopt some techniques from the conflict resolution models, where we start with where we want to end up, rather than where we have been and recognise that developing trust requires us both to hear dissenting voices and criticism and build towards better options.