For most of this year, while the phoney election campaign has played noisily in the background, I have been listening to people talk about the values they want to see instilled in their children.

From these people – all of whom are parents with school-age children — I have heard a cry from the heart: our nation is bereft of moral leadership.

Prosperity is not enough. People are comforted knowing the economy is doing well, but they also see the long run of economic security as somehow sapping our morale. Society is even more materialistic than before; more a prey to instant gratification; more self-centred; less likely to care about others; less practised in the social bonding that comes from sharing hardship.

There is a sense that material prosperity has made people more individualistic in outlook, less concerned with the welfare of the community.

These findings correspond to the sentiments identified by the social researchers Hugh Mackay and Richard Eckersley. Mackay perceived a sense that “the Australian way of life” was under pressure from commercialism and a steady decline in morals. Eckersley has written: “The central purpose of a nation should be to improve the quality of life of its people . . . social, economic, cultural and environmental”.

The parents I spoke to didn’t talk like that, but that is what they were saying. They look back, through the sepia tint of nostalgia, to their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, and imagine a simpler life in which the exigencies of war and depression made people more important to one another. They see these events as drawing people together and grounding them in what is really important. It might be an idealisation, but for many people it represents a standard, implies the ascendancy of certain values, from which they believe today’s Australia has drifted away. 

In what they said I heard the voice of what I will call “moral liberalism”. By this I mean a world view based on commitment to an established moral code coupled with recognition of the primacy of the individual. This is not the same as self-centred individualism, but is about personal autonomy, the right to make choices, and the responsibility for living with the consequences. This world view is above politics, but of course it has political implications, and the people with whom I spoke expressed political judgments based on this “moral liberal” view of the world.

Their adherence to an established moral code could be heard in their wish to see their children grow up imbued with the values of respect, honesty, compassion, love for one another, justice, acceptance of others, self-reliance, responsibility and civic duty.

It was in discussing those values that they expressed their longing for a government that would show by example how to live out these ideals. The present Government was widely considered to have failed the nation in this regard.

They spoke of religious intolerance and vented their profound distaste for what they saw as politically opportunistic discrimination against Muslims. This was allied to their concerns about intolerance of cultural and ethnic difference and by extension to abuses of human rights. In particular they referred to the “children overboard” affair and the treatment of Dr Muhamed Haneef. As a result, many went out of their way to express respect for Islam because they wished to raise a voice against what they saw as the current national mood.

The treatment of asylum-seekers and of Indigenous people and government attitudes to climate change were other issues on which there was seen to be moral failure in national leadership. Each in its own way was seen as the behaviour of a selfish, materialistic and uncaring society, by no means the kind of society in which they wished to see their children grow up.

These perceived failures contributed to their questioning Australia’s proclaimed status as the “fair go” society. They also were troubled by what they regarded as the growing gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots”, and by the “obscene” salaries paid to some corporate executives.

Several said that Australia was a “fair go” society if you were white, middle class and of Anglo-Celtic ethnicity – and made a point of including themselves. The very term “fair go” was seen to have been hijacked for political purposes, particularly by John Howard.

I can’t say these views are representative of what most Australians are thinking, but they resonate with what many social researchers have been hearing for years, much of it recently brought together in a book by a colleague of mine at the University of Melbourne, Professor John Langmore, entitled To Firmer Ground. It is a fair bet, then, that the main political parties are hearing something very similar, if they are asking similar questions.

What are the political implications?

It is comparatively simple for John Howard. People have known for years where the Government stands on issues such as refugees, human rights, and Indigenous people. The electorate has watched him turn away asylum-seekers, play the race card, and dissemble over the reasons for going to war in Iraq.

Perhaps Liberal Party polling is telling him something about the need for moral leadership and it is this that lies behind Mr Howard’s last-minute conversion on Reconciliation. It risks losing him some conservative blue-collar support, but he probably calculates that WorkChoices has already done that anyway.

It is also probable that the Liberals’ research is saying that, knowing what they do about the Government’s capacity for moral leadership, voters will look at what else is on offer and weigh it in the balance. In response, $34 billion in tax cuts thudded onto the scales from the Coalition and nearly as much from Labor – before some semblance of restraint took hold last week.

Money and fear have served John Howard well in the past and he hasn’t much choice now anyway. The fear factor this time also concerns money: voters risk losing all, he says, if they elect an unproven and inexperienced alternative. He seems to have sub-contracted the race stuff to Kevin Andrews.

It is more complicated for Kevin Rudd. If all this social research is right and the electorate is thirsting for a leader who will act upon the values that ordinary Australians aspire to, then one of the reasons voters are interested in him is that he might be such a leader.

On climate change he showed leadership by accepting that there is a real threat to the environment and that Australia, as a rich nation, has a responsibility to reduce practices that cause global warming. Under the resultant pressure, the Government was forced into a series of policy changes.

Then along came a different test of leadership – the death penalty – and he failed it comprehensively. Labor’s policy is to oppose the death penalty, including for terrorists. Whether you agree with it or not, it is a policy grounded in principle: that state-sponsored killing is wrong. On October 8, four days before the anniversary of the Bali bombings, Labor’s foreign affairs spokesman, Robert McClelland, re-stated the policy at a human rights forum. Some media, notably The Australian, interpreted this with headlines such as “Save Bali Bombers: Labor”. Mr Rudd promptly “counselled” Mr McClelland for insensitivity and spent the next 24 hours talking tough about terrorists “rotting in jail” while making chopping motions with his hands. No robust re-assertion of principle.

What does this say about Mr Rudd’s commitment to principle? That it is fine so long as it is not put to the test at a sensitive time? That it is fine so long as it is not misrepresented by elements of the media? That it is fine so long as it does not offer John Howard the slightest chance to “wedge” Labor and so perhaps gain some short-term political advantage?

His handling of the death penalty issue seemed to encapsulate one part of his strategy throughout this election year. Some commentators have described this as “small-target” politics and likened it to John Howard’s approach in 1996: say as little as possible about what you stand for, and wait for the Government to self-destruct. Another part has been described as “me-tooism” in which the differences between Liberal and Labor are minimised so as not to give John Howard the opportunity to spook the electorate with the spectre of change.

It seems to me there is a third part. Mr Rudd has made himself a large target on issues where he believes Labor is strong – climate change, industrial relations, education. In all these areas he has put forward detailed policies that are clearly different from the Government’s, and they are all areas of concern to the electorate. He has couched them, too, in terms that suggest a commitment to principle: Australia’s responsibility as a rich nation to take a lead in countering climate change; the justice in protecting the comparatively weak employee from the comparatively strong employer; the fairness in giving everyone the best chance in life by a good education.

These are fine as far as they go, but they do not slake the thirst for moral leadership I heard from all those parents across Australia. What about repudiating racism? Insisting on genuine equity for Indigenous people? Encouraging the acceptance of differences in religion, ethnicity and colour? Taking a humane attitude towards asylum-seekers? Mr Rudd’s mutedness on these issues suggests that the hardheads among his advisers probably think they are all potential “wedges” that Mr Howard would use to his advantage.

The community’s reaction against Kevin Andrews’ attack on the Sudanese, who are among the most traumatised and vulnerable people in Australia, offered some evidence that the race “wedge” is no longer the potent tool it was in 2001 and 2004. For this we may have to thank the economic prosperity of which John Howard is so proud. Racism in Australia has long been associated with fear of invasion and of economic insecurity. The White Australia policy was an institutional bulwark against Asia which grew out of our sense of isolation from “people like us” in Western Europe.

We saw it again in the mid-1990s. After a decade of painful economic adjustment brought on by the opening up of the Australian economy under the Hawke and Keating governments, many voters were suffering and looking for scapegoats. Many unskilled and semi-skilled jobs had gone off-shore. People felt powerless and resentful. No one had asked them whether they wanted the Australian dollar floated, or the banking system deregulated or tariff protection cut. All they knew was that their jobs had gone, they were worse off and their children might be worse off still.

My colleague Irving Saulwick and I heard all this in 1997 when we researched the rapid rise to prominence of Pauline Hanson. Her virulent attacks on Asians and on Indigenous people were racism in a form unheard-of in Australia’s parliamentary discourse since the early 1960s. Yet in talking to ordinary people around Australia about this, we found resentments that were grounded in downward envy and economic insecurity, not racial prejudice.

Yes, they asserted that migrants from Asia were being favoured over migrants from other areas. Yes, they associated the Vietnamese immigrant community with drug-related crime (perhaps in Kevin Andrews’ world this is another form of “not fitting in”). And – as always – they tended to think that too many migrants were coming to Australia. Of Indigenous people they complained that many were better off than the people whose taxes were used for their “handouts”. Yet always it came back to the level of unemployment, competition for jobs, and the costs to social welfare. Hanson offered them scapegoats.

Paradoxically for John Howard, a decade of economic prosperity has diluted the scapegoat-hunting propensities of the population. This is one factor that has weakened the “wedge” on race as a political tool.

Another factor that made the race “wedge” so potent was fear of terrorism and the opportunity for personalising this in the form of Muslims and people of Middle Eastern origin. The failure of the so-called war on terror in Iraq, coupled with the scandal in which the Australian Wheat Board paid hundreds of millions in bribes to Saddam Hussein’s government, makes this is an area where Mr Howard faces considerable risks if he tries to exert political purchase.

To go into an election, therefore, with the fixed idea that you must not be “wedged” on these issues is to fight the battles of the present using the assumptions and tactics of the past. Given the community’s clamour for moral leadership, the “wedge” may now be seen as a symbol of differentiation between a potential leader of principle and a proven political opportunist.

This might all sound idealistic, and the political hardheads might dismiss it as soft liberal musings, but and the evidence suggests the sentiment is real and strong and will inform the vote of a considerable cross-section of the population.

Embracing an approach like this has risks, of course. Who knows what opportunities might arise for exploitation by the Government? But it would make Mr Rudd look as though he stood for something bigger than the economy, bigger even than climate change: a prizing of human decency that matches the moral, not just the material, aspirations of the Australian people.

*Dr Muller is a visiting fellow in the Centre for Public Policy at the University of Melbourne, and a policy and social researcher.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey