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Building blocks for a compassionate society


Given my notorious addiction to lists, I have tried to set out topics which should be on the ethical agenda in politics/ public life. I stopped counting at 42.

1. 'Terror'
2. Torture
3. Death Penalty
4. Weapons of mass destruction  [e.g. cluster bombs]
5. Refugees/ asylum seekers
6. Institutionalised cruelty

7. 'Shooting the victim'
8. 'Otherness'/ 'the oppressed'.
9. Religious freedom/ tolerance
10. Monoculturism v. multiculturism
11. Censorship and freedom of expression
11. Hope v. Fear
12. Guns
13. Global warming
14. Water
15. Sustainability
16. 'Global poverty'
17. Debt forgiveness
18. Forestry
19. Strip mining the environment
20. Racism
21. Aborigines
22. 'Sorry'
23. 'Plausible deniability' in politics/ serial lying / moral erosion
24. The use of double standards
25. Needs based education - the problem of transfer payments
26. Defining 'values'/ 'Australian values'/  social inclusion
27. Decision making - faith based? or evidence based?
28. 'Certainty' v. 'Uncertainty'
29. Economic v. Non-economic factors
30. Double standards - Hicks, refugees, Santo Santoro
31. Drugs ? legal v. illegal
32. Gambling
33. Sexual exploitation/ pornography
34. Child labour
35. Women's rights/ affirmative action
36. Animal rights/ cruelty/ experimentation
37. Research in embryonic stem cells
39. Abortion
40. Euthanasia
41. 'Same sex relationships'
42. 'Family values'

Tackling the problem of terrorism by the application of force is unlikely to succeed. Pouring blood on the Iraqi desert produced an upsurge of terrorism where none had been before: cruelty, genocide even, but not terrorism, let alone fundamentalist terrorism.

Our prevailing policy line in the West is that terrorism has no cause - it is a baffling phenomenon, beyond rational analysis, an epidemic, a manifestation of evil, not seen as a political reaction, to be resolved, or even understood, by rational processes.

The case of David Hicks raises disturbing examples of double standards. It is inconceivable that Hicks could have been held by, say, the French, or the Russians, under comparable conditions as at Guantánamo Bay, without expressions of outrage from John Howard, or even Philip Ruddock.

No American citizen could be detained at Guantánamo Bay because it would violate the US Bill of Rights - but Australian citizens were liable if its Government made no protest.

Before the trial began, Prime Minister Howard and the US Ambassador Robert McCallum both declared Hicks guilty of unspecified but serious offences. They wanted him to be convicted of something. A 'fix' based on a guilty plea followed by rapid repatriation, and release after the 2007 election might be a way to bury the controversy.

Torture is now routinely justified instead of being outlawed. The arguments 'We only torture in a good cause' and 'If they can do it, so can we…' should have been dismissed out of hand, but were not. We should have asked: 'How are torturers recruited? Self-selection? Going with the flow? Does the Eichmann defence of 'superior orders' apply?'

The rule of law, presumption of innocence, access to courts and legal representation can all be withdrawn at will. Violence and sexual humiliation of prisoners became routine. Moving prospective torturees to a jurisdiction beyond the reach of US courts is coyly described as 'rendition' or 'extraordinary rendition', meaning 'outsourced, privatised torture'.

As Prime Minister, John Howard perfected the idea that compassion is an Australian export, but not an import. We were prepared to fight for the Iraqis, whether they liked it or not, but we would not let Saddam's victims come here as refugees. Nor would we admit refugees from Aceh whose habitat had been swept into the ocean.

It is paradoxical that the Australian Government strongly opposes barriers in trade, and strongly supports high barriers for people.

It has been disturbing to see Kevin Andrews, our Minister for Immigration, a barrister and practising Christian, referring to the need to apply 'deterrence' against refugees. But the concept of deterrence belongs to the criminal law. Australia is a signatory to the Refugee Convention, which makes it clear that refugees are not 'illegals' for arriving without papers or authorisation. The Prime Minister has succeeded in persuading many Australians that refugees who arrive without papers or authorisation are guilty of breaking the law and should be imprisoned.

Our institutionalised sadism is designed to destroy human dignity.  In our detention centres, there are no longer 'suicide attempts': they have been re-defined out of existence and are now called 'attention-seeking incidents' or 'blackmail'.

The Government promotes a very narrow ethical agenda: sex, family, education, but rejects a broad one: compassion for refugees, peace, sustainability, tolerance, saving the planet.

I welcome public discourse about 'values'. It is essential not to confuse 'values' with 'value', especially with a $ sign in front of it. Universities have become trading corporations. Subjects which try to explain the meaning of life are struggling to survive. The environment is seen as an economic resource, with forests seen as woodchips on stumps. Citizens, students, patients, passengers, audiences have all become customers - the economic factor subsumes every other characteristic.

The values that I would like to see promoted are

* Compassion
* Generosity
* Global perspective
* Openness
* Reconciliation
* Creativity
* Imagination
* Relieving gender, race and class conflicts
* Intellectual rigour
* Taking a longer term perspective
* Handling fear in a positive, constructive way
* Courage
* Independent judgment.

These are the building blocks for a just and compassionate society.

- Hon. Dr. Barry Jones AO, FAA, FAHA, FTSE, FASSA is Vice-Chancellor's Fellow, University of Melbourne. This article is drawn from a lecture delivered by Barry Jones to the Sydney Chapter of the Centre for an Ethical Society (CES), on 29 March 2007 (click here to download the full text). Part of his Lecture is drawn from Chapters 13, 14 and 15 of his autobiography, A Thinking Reed (Allen & Unwin, 2006).

CES aims to promote Christian Social Justice within Australia's democratic tradition. The Sydney Chapter will hold its first AGM on 19 April at 6pm in the Mitchell Hall, Mechanics Institute, 280 Pitt Street. All welcome.



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Existing comments

I would add to Barry's list of language changes the fact that 'personnel' has become 'human resources'. Employees are no longer persons, but are resources.

Gavan Breen | 10 April 2007  

How to explain or even begin to underestand the source of the behaviour of Howard and his bunch of jacanapes? Yes, it IS a question of 'values' and one look at ministerial behaviour broadcast from the Australian Parliament gives us a clue. The 'values' of the playground bully are made manifest.

Bill Bradshaw | 10 April 2007  

I see our country as an independent state of America, steadily absorbing the culture and ethics of that country whilst labelling any perceived non-conformity as
'unaustralian" How odd!

Kevin Crotty | 10 April 2007  

I've had a feeling that there is something hypocritically rotten in this country, indeed in this culture. Thank you, Barry, for this confirming diagnosis.

David Arthur | 11 April 2007  

The article is spot on. I wouldn't be happy to be overseas in any capacity, with this prime minister at the helm. no values of life, standards or honesty remain while he is in the chair. Give us back the Australia we had 11 years ago!

Betty Slatyer | 11 April 2007  

Our Hon.Barry in more ways than one is still a champion of freedom of thought and choice. He reminds me of the days when community and societal development were not an industry but about participation. Barry incapsulates a memory of compassion,generosity, global perspective, openness, reconciliation, creativity, imagination and many more aspirations of a pluralistic outlook seemingly reinvented into the industry of fear, xenaphobic war-mongering for power and profit and therefore recycled media profit-run highs and low of dispair.

Chae Paterson | 11 April 2007  

You know,(to use the preface the Mr Cheney always uses in his answers to journalists' questions), Tolstoy expresssed the judgement that a society was either good or evil depending on the preponderance of either good or evil that obtained inthat particular society. This begs the question: 'Is here more good than evil in the societies of America and Australia?' We go down a dangerous path when we damn to hell our Australia, because of one miscarriage of justice. In calculating the good versus balance evil in our Austrakia, which way does the scale tip? We would be mad to say "evil" wouldn't we? So far as I am concerned 'Et in Arcadia ego'.

Claude-Joseph Rigney | 13 April 2007  

What Mr. Rigney says is true ,but we must try to keep the evil bits at a minimum and not ignore them.

mary rose fraser | 13 April 2007  

Having recently learned how to access the internet I discovered a better world than that which I live in. Thank you Barry Jones and Eureka Street and other contributors. Hope for the future is possible with solidarity, sharing and expanding of Values...without a $sign.
I had no idea I could be in such agreement with so many people who are still practising human beings.
Thank you all.

Audrey Winther | 23 July 2007  

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