A speech by Eva at the Sydney Festival, 13/1/10 on Hope: crisis catharsis and renewal

I have 3 points to make:
• We can think big and make a more civil society: ethical, fair and kind!
• This involves changing political/policy agendas to make society our focus not the economy. …. and letting the politicians know we want a change.
• We need to engage ourselves in conversations on what needs to be done, and how to do it!

2010: a hope-full starting point for renewal to fix the crises caused by the last thirty odd years of bad policy and politics. Firstly let’s acknowledge that whatever we are doing is on Aboriginal land, and we need to thank the elders, past and present who care for it. We can learn from their knowledge, and skills in mending social links in difficult times with hope, resilience and humour, as I have done recently.

It is the quality of relationships that make societies work well. Belonging is crucial to our sense of who we are and can be and defines what we can do and for whom. Even those of us who move around and may not have a clear sense of place, still need to be accepted and see ourselves as linked to the margins of somewhere. Tribe, clan, family, neighbourhood and interest groupings help us define our ways of being.

Ties may be resilient and adaptive or over-stretched. Belonging may come at costs which constrain us and create pain by making demands we will not, or cannot, comply with. Resilience allows us to deal with the difficulties,

Relationships requires kindness, which come from the words ‘kin and our kind’, but means much more. It offers a form of connection between people that recognises our common ground, connected vulnerability and reciprocal needs. So we may both get pleasure from being kind and generous and giving to others, but may be pushed into self interest and competition.

Both responses are part of being human and therefore need to be managed at both personal and political levels. Balancing differing needs and views, civilly, creates tensions. Doing the right thing by others, as well as ensuring rights are respected may not be easy and needs to be encouraged.

Valuing the quality of our connections is basic to being more civil. These links can be reciprocal, generous and sustaining; or if stretched and broken, become inward knots of anger if things go wrong.

We may be good to those we know in our private lives but such relationships don’t fit in the public sphere. Putting the social back on the public agenda means reversing the language of public debates from individualistic greed and self interest to collaborative social well being and making policies that demonstrate and support these.

Hope is both powerful and fragile. It can fuel change by mixing optimism with seeing the ways forward. Hope, however, can drift to despair if it just delivers futile dreams for those who feel powerless and unfairly excluded. Hope needs dignity to fuel a collective sense of worth and encourage on wider responsibilities. This is the X factor: the sense of agency that produces health and well being which has been identified by researchers as the control factor that is the core of fairer societies.

Research shows that unfair societies are toxic, so my hope for 2010 is that we will engage in making our society more civil. I am using ‘civil’ in the same way I used it in my 1995 Boyer lectures, as shorthand for fairness which involves ethical social links that allow us to engage thoughtfully with diversity, the healthy tensions of belonging as well as pushing the boundaries. Society is about valuing the ties that bind us to each other, from gossamer threads to thick twisted ropes. It should not be seen just as a contract between self-interested individuals. But more on that later!

We know these formulae are part of making society more civil, so why have we failed to adopt the public practices and policies that encourage better societal links?

The damage was done by the long dominance of the neo liberal agenda, with Thatcher proclaiming in the 80s that there was no such thing as society, just individuals who need to take care of themselves. This fed into the neo liberal beliefs that markets were the answer. Equations assumed decisions were made by economically rational men. Feelings and generosity were defined as irrationally feminine and therefore irrelevant to a macho and autistic economic ideas. This masculinised view of what counts still dominates political agendas, promoting a basic distrust of human generosity.

Markets may increase the money supply, but at a high cost to collective and connected goodwill and well being. Self-interested greed is to blame for both the crises in the environment and the financial markets, so solving these requires new policy thinking.

As evidence mounts that economists have failed as alchemists, we need to explore older and new ways of making sense of the world. The shift must be from increasing production and consumption to avoid scarcity, towards allocating fair shares of what we can sustainably re-distribute.

This needs a mindset change which develops policies for encouraging commitment rather than enforcing compliance. Social policies should recognise and extend healthy personal links to make connections become more generous, kind and mutually satisfying. These will include a variety of feelings: belonging, giving, accepting, rejecting, loving, hating, feeling, talking, touching and caring which are intrinsic to being human. Politicians who ignore these emotions make mistakes which damage the social fabric.

Recognising that humans are fallibility is the starting point for change. However, if people are infantilised or encouraged to take care of only their kin and kind, they will resist contributing to a wider public good.

Changing priorities needs leadership to be seen as fair and ethical. Accepting the need to share the costs and benefits of remedies to the financial and environmental crises will not be easy, but is necessary. Is this possible in an election year?

Election strategies could further damage our social fabric if the political parties play on popular anxieties to grab power. Can we ask political parties to campaigns responsibly and not to treat voters as venal and ready to sell out to the highest bidder?

The cost of such an election win will be too high if it reinforces the legitimacy of self-interest. Voters need policies and options that appeal to what Lincoln called our better angels, rather than to the lowest denominator exposed by focus groups.

Campaigns should emphasise the positive options for sharing and fairness, and not scare monger on boat people and taxes. Using scapegoats and unfairness plays into voter cynicism and distrust, further damaging the resilience in the social fabric. Fear is the antidote of hope and creates despair.

Communities too often absorb and reflect the wider views around them, particularly if promoted heavily in advertising and media.. Is ethical leadership possible in politics or almost an oxymoron?

There are some examples. In 1979 Malcolm Fraser and the Opposition supported the Vietnamese boat people, despite their being politically risky and unpopular. Peter Andren held a conservative seat with radical policies for some years because his voters told him they trusted him, even when they disagreed. Could that happen now? Are our leaders even aware of the possibilities of gaining respect for doing the right thing rather than selling political indulgences for votes? We need parties and policies which make the more social possible.

People make their decisions on varying mixes of fact and feelings: ethics, the desire to please, the wish to do good or the desire take care of their own with money. We need policies that appeal to voters’ goodwill to others to makes sensible and ethical public decision possible.

We need to remember money is a poor substitute for relationships so economic criteria should no longer define the good society.

So let us start in 2010 to unravel the knots and tangles that have damaged the links that make us social beings and prioritise ways of making society more civil. This activity requires our time and commitment because asking questions is easier than finding answers. Combining hope and thoughtfulness gives us the power to work out what we can do – and be, by making our lives more civil, more fun and more creative!

How? A few suggestions for our leaders to use in policy and practice, as well for all of us

Be fair and kind to strangers as well as those we know
Be generous and prepared to share
Recognise and respect what we have in common as well as our differences
Budget time not money so we can spend time on what we value
Collaborate and co-operate as a first strategy to meet social ends, not competition
Act with civility and respect, even when we disagree
Retain goodwill and optimism about the good will of others, even when it seems tough
Build ethical cultures by both doing the right thing and recognising the rights of others
Recognise and respect autonomy as well as connectedness that work
Value risk takers and boundary pushers who also reflect the above criteria
Recognise the value of shared experiences, such as tonight, including with strangers.

Please join me in making this happen!

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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