Common good key to reversing trust deficit



Many Australians are concerned with the current state of our political, economic and social institutions and the leadership of them. Australians are outraged by the behaviour of our political leaders securing their hold on power and position, and by the behaviour of our economic and social institutions highlighted by recent royal commissions.

People battle over a crate labeled 'power' while a happy few share a second crate labeled 'common good'. Cartoon by Chris JohnstonWhile for some the rage burns, for the rest the response is a collective shrug of the shoulders and a question of resignation: 'What can I do about it?'

Whenever institutional interests are put ahead of the legitimate concerns of others, including the poor and marginalised, there develops a trust deficit. This deficit is gripping institutions here and overseas. Its impact is deep and destructive.

The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, a global survey across 28 countries, shows that trust in each of Australia's four key institutions — government, business in general, the media and not-for-profits — has fallen. Since 2017, trust in government has fallen from 37 per cent to 35 per cent, business from 48 per cent to 45 per cent, media from 32 per cent to 31 per cent and NGOs from 52 per cent to 48 per cent. These were not great numbers to begin with, but the slide, which is going all in one direction, should give cause for alarm.

As our trust in institutions declines, so too does our commitment to them. Our relationship with the political system and its parties, our economic institutions and even churches has become detached. The salacious reporting of the countless examples of wrongdoing has, for many, extinguished the fire of outrage that would demand change. Instead, these scandals of self-interest have increased antipathy towards the very institutions that we have created to support and be part of our society.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church is a concise yet comprehensive overview of the Catholic Church's social teaching and is self-described as a 'treasure trove of radical wisdom offered to the whole of humanity in the interests of the common good'.

Gaudium et Spes, one of the key documents that emerged from the Second Vatican Council, expresses the common good as the sum of those conditions of social life that allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfilment. The common good holds in tension the fulfilment of an individual's interest and the interests of the whole.


"When there is an authentic commitment to others with selfless sharing of love and good will, especially towards those hurt beyond anything we could imagine, institutions and their leaders can be powerful forces for good."


In 1992, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference published The Common Wealth for the Common Good, which followed the bishops' inquiry into the distribution of wealth in this country. The bishops said: 'Commonly, the greedy grip of consumerism and what we see as our own needs blind us to a wider view of what it takes to make an equitable society where the needs of all are addressed.'

Fast forward to 2018 and the findings of Justice Kenneth Hayne in his interim report of the Financial Services Royal Commission. The Royal Commission has brought to public attention example after example of unconscionable behaviour of Australia's banking and financial services sector. Commissioner Hayne concludes that the reason for these behaviours was greed — the pursuit of short-term profit at the expense of basic standards of honesty.

The excessive pursuit of self-interest, whether it be for the accumulation of wealth or preservation of power or reputation, can lead to actions that set aside our moral code of fairness and justice. The excessive pursuit of self-interest is in many ways key to the current state of affairs that dogs our political, economic, social and charitable institutions. It is a condition that goes beyond our institutions and has embedded itself in the community at large.

Competition for resources, rapid technological change, insecure employment, an uncertain global and domestic economy as well as the transfer of decision-making from the state to an often underprepared public is creating an unease among us that often drives us to look inwards. Self-interest is, in reality, self-preservation. And while fear may partly explain our focus on self-interest, it does not justify it.

There is hope, though, as the recent national apology by the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader to the thousands of survivors of institutional child sex abuse showed. When there is an authentic commitment to others with selfless sharing of love and good will, especially towards those hurt beyond anything we could imagine, institutions and their leaders can be powerful forces for good.

It is that commitment to others that Pope Francis asks of us as we go about our daily lives. It is a call that we open our eyes and our hearts to others, acting in the best interest of our neighbours rather than ourselves.

The common good is fundamental to the functioning of our society. Being attentive to the common good, we need to renew our commitment to sound institutions and to judgements based on more than individual self-interest.



Joe ZabarJoe Zabar is the Director of Economic Policy for Catholic Social Services Australia and author of An Economy that works for All.

Topic tags: Joe Zabar, common good, Second Vatican Council, Financial Services Royal Commission



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Existing comments

I know that I've commented before about trust being something fragile and difficult to achieve, most especially when our actions do not match our fine words. Self-interest, in a good context, can sometimes help us to see ourselves more clearly and can certainly give us a sense of where we are standing. We can only be battered so many times before we give up and not trust, as is evidenced by the fall in our approval ratings of trustworthiness in our institutions. The church not being immune. This is where leadership is so important. The common good implies we are all on a level playing field. However, in the church as elsewhere there is a hierarchy. In the deepest sense of course we are all equal and leadership of institutions may need to keep a little note handy: remember.
Pam | 27 November 2018

Well expressed Joe. I wonder if the 24/7 news bombardment has alerted us to a situation that has most likely always existed in our western society ? In any case the level of greed and corruption seems to me, as I approach my 70th year on the planet, to have markedly increased in the last three decades or so. Sadly the Church has not been immune to this trend , however a read of Church History shows that such issues have plagued it for many centuries, only now it is out in the open for all to see. I feel concern for my children and their children s' futures as I approach the end of my time. It is so very sad. Still we must NOT give up hope!
Gavin O'Brien | 27 November 2018

All very good in theory but how are we ever going to get people, at all levels of society, to agree on what are the basic social conditions that allow all citizens to live happy and flourishing lives? Remember we are dealing with broken human beings, some of whom are more ruthless than others in their pursuit of their share (self-perceived) of planet Earth's limited resources.
Uncle Pat | 27 November 2018

This clear and lucid argument should be given a wider airing. Cloud the author submit it to the web page Guardian. We must open this discussion to a wider audience.
Paul Van Ruth | 27 November 2018

Agreed Gavin. So sad that, even in this era, the institutional church appears to have put "greed" and "power" before the common good
Sheelah Egan | 27 November 2018

Gavin - I agree with you and others that changing the way we think about ourselves and our place in a modern market orientated society is difficult. Calling out what is wrong is a start, but we need solutions and leadership to support change. Where there is will there is hope. I have been in the aid and welfare sector for about 15 years and have witnessed wonderful acts of generosity towards people in need. That sense common good lives within us all, the trick is to make it the focus of our social and economic policies. Fr Frank Brennan and the team here at CSSA will continue to work hard for the poor and those left on the margins. That is one thing you can be assured of.
Joe Zabar | 27 November 2018

The Theory of Evolution teaches us that the purpose of all life is to survive, beating the competition as it does so, and procreate. One species, on this planet at least, is able to choose to go against this. Human beings can choose, as no other animal can, to act altruistically even unto death. That's the freedom we have, the freedom no other animal has. Individuals acting for others, in ways great and small, every day, are transforming the world. Thank you, Joe, for reminding us that the Church knows this. We just have to grit our teeth and keep doing it. Or start doing it.
Joan Seymour | 30 November 2018

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