Election year narrative shaped by the common good


There was a surfeit of alliteration that broke out after the announcement of this year's election date. Prime Minister Julia Gillard called for 'policies and plans' to be at the centre of national discourse, instead of 'petty politics' and 'platitudes devoid of purpose'. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott reiterated the Coalition's 'positive plans' for a 'prosperous economy'. This preponderance of Ps reminded me of another p-word: personality.

It may seem to some that Australian political culture has only recently veered toward characterisations of political candidates, but we have always been led by such perceptions.

Somehow we need that face, the embodiment of the institution with which we are engaging. It explains why so much of public debate involves personalities and their supposed motives and machinations. Politics is reality-TV writ large, featuring the same fragile alliances, elimination challenges and ceremonial evictions.

Abbott's statement that the 2013 election is about trust is thus correct — but also redundant. Every election is ultimately about trust. The problem of who to trust, however, lies at the end of a string of other important questions. For as far as politics goes, there are no spectators; we are all on the same island.

What then would be the appropriate basis for trust? Are perceptions of trustworthiness grounded in objective measures such as policy costings, economic priorities, and ministerial calibre?

What does trustworthiness even mean in politics, where the best-intentioned people become compromised and governance involves many variables beyond control? How do we reconcile different objects of trust, when relying on our leaders to preserve the status quo is vastly different to counting on reform? How do we make sense of trust when policies are often crafted from two or more equally desirable but opposite things?

It seems the case that framing the vote in terms of trust has limitations, not least because we're talking about politicians here. It renders voters passive, as if their role in the political process begins and ends at the ballot. In democracies, we are called to be vigilant.

Such vigilance is not neutral. For it to have any meaning, for it to not be subject to the vagaries of industry and media, it must be tied to larger, non-dispensable values. This includes our sense of the common good.

It is a notion that has become almost quaint. 'What's in it for me?' drives so much election coverage that the electorate has become convinced that that is how political leaders are meant to be judged. Yet the common good — defined as the sum of conditions that enable individuals and social groups to reach their full potential — underpins good governance. It demands long-sighted and reasonable decisions, tempered by compassion.

This ought to be the litmus test for policy as campaigns get underway.

Political parties hardly differ anyway, when it comes to touchstones such as education, health and employment. They all say that they plan to make Australians the best educated, best cared for, most prosperous people.

But the language and specificity of the policy detail must bear scrutiny. Are these details concrete and reviewable in the first place? Do they match complex realities? Are they consistent with the advice of non-partisan experts? Do they lend themselves to a coherent national vision? Most of all, does the policy serve the common good?

This question ought to frame the narrative for these elections. It deflates the character assassinations, entitlement mongering and prevarication. It invites conversation about what the common good looks like in Australia, where median wealth is high compared to the rest of the world, and inflation and interest rates low.

What are the ramifications of low government revenue, for instance, on our ability to put the common good into practice? What are the 'goods' we hold to be non-negotiable? How do we forge multi-partisan cooperation on these? Such conversations must have a place in the coming months.

It is in the nature of elections to be educative, highlighting as they do the things that we deem most important. If we — including the media — fail to take the opportunity to reorient away from our reality-TV absorptions and towards a more mature political discourse, then we may indeed deserve the governments we elect. 

Fatima Measham headshotFatima Measham is a Melbourne-based social commentator, and tweeter

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, election 2013, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott



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Existing comments

Brilliant I mix in a variety of social communities and in some/many this concept of the common good is sismply not understood. How do we generate a culture which cares beyond the self. Is it a leadership problem?
GAJ | 01 February 2013

An excellant article , non political and balanced .I would hope our editors keep this balance but I doubt it . I find the definition and hence the usefullness of "the common good "impractical .All cannot reach their full potential. Those who have their income taken away will have their potential to grow and their potential to contribute to society restricted .Those who receive will benefit .Governments redistribute wealth to create loosers as well as winners ,all cannot reach thier full potential .
John Crew | 01 February 2013

" 'What's in it for me?' drives so much election coverage that the electorate has become convinced that that is how political leaders are meant to be judged." *********** There are various levels at which this can be applied. Personally: at a community level: the National , the International level,(Is it in our nations interests?) and the age-old struggle between the "Haves" and the "Nots", which pertains to every level. There are 2 Ultimate objectives in our motivations. Self ("Us", as in all those levels), and God (The Universal Good). Striking a balance between the 2 is what life is all about.
Robert Liddy | 01 February 2013

A very important piece in a political situation where Tony Abbott's populism debases the idea of 'the common good' - fooling people into thinking that it means nothing more than our collective desire, and right, to be taxed less, and a desperate and selfish determination to close our borders against asylum seekers.
Joe Castley | 01 February 2013

Trust! Trust? No, elections are not about 'trust' at all anymore, if they ever were. This election cannot be about 'trust' because neither leader is trusted on a personal level by hordes of voters, rightly or wrongly. And the backers of the LNP, business, cannot be trusted at all after their foray into writing the IR laws with Howard, who abused the trust he was given with control of the Senate, which means the Senate cannot be trusted to operate unless it is imbalanced. The Greens are not trusted by many because they kept Gillard in power, and not trusted by others because they have created a carbon tax but failed to improve health or education. The media is not and cannot be trusted because it is a monopoly with a single view point, except for some who regard the ABC as being still run from Moscow. Local members are not trusted, candidates are suspected as being keen to 'gravy train' themselves, employees are seen to be undermining the bosses, unions are not trusted because of overblown scandals. State governments have never been trusted and certainly are making no effort today to be seens as trustworthy. Elections are about deciding who is the least worst option and that has nothing at all to do with 'trust'.
janice wallace | 01 February 2013

Well and truly said, Ms Measham. Having to listen constantly to ad hominem vitriol is sickening in the extreme. Here's to fixed terms, properly-costed and evidence-based policies from all sides of politics.
Patricia R | 01 February 2013

Comments on public matters often lean towards the fashionable, cynical attitude that politics is a nasty business and is best be ignored. On the contrary, attention of well-meaning, well-informed people is essential. In Australia we are fortunate in having a political system that is basically democratic and reasonably fair, despite the over-influence of those who can make large donations to parties. If any of us sees faults we should take the trouble of participating to some extent rather than standing back as sneering spectators.
Bob Corcoran | 01 February 2013

Politics is a nasty business in many countries of the world. Thank God Australia is a democracy, and the vast majority of Australians are well-meaning and well-informed and they can't wait for September 14th to cast their votes. I can't wait for Monday September 16th, to see the response of Eureka Street's bloggers.
Ron Cini | 01 February 2013

After all that has been written, said and done, as well as what will be further said and done the two candidates who head their respective political parties do not have the character or vision to lead. It would be interesting if we had the same system as the USA in choosing the candidates that will represent their parties. Sadly, there are faceless people who decide the fate and destiny of Australians. It makes me imagine that we are all participants in a Survival reality show. Time to blow out the torches of the incumbents.
JanD | 01 February 2013

And the forgotten people in all this speculation seem to be the local members. These are the people we put into our parliament to represent us. These are the people we actually vote for it is their ideas we might be able to influence.
Margaret McDonald | 01 February 2013

The average voter does not understand the philosophical explanations that you have put forward and it is because journos and the like cloud simple matters, that simple things become unsimple. When Abbott talks of "trust", he is putting to the average person that their trust has been abused and if trust is one of the aspects that are important to them when voting, then it is important for Tony Abbott to put things in their right context. I think you are doing a journalistic ""thing" and just muddying the water, well written though your article may be.
Shirley McHugh | 01 February 2013

I enjoyed the argument put by Fatima and thank her for highlighting the "Common Good" theme. I agree wholeheartedly that this should be the litmus for policies and our involvement in the political process. A very good succinct piece. Thank you.
Faye Lawrence | 01 February 2013

I thouroughly enjoyed you reflective piece Fatima. Your connection of trust in political discourse with the notion of the common good and how tht may be assessed provides an excellent framework for making an informed decision of both leaders and their policies. The other question Iwould ask is whether there is any semblance of a moral compass that underpins their thinking about the common good.
Joe Cauchi | 01 February 2013

It is too convenient to blame our politicians for the wickedly craven stae of our political discourse. I believe they are simply mirror reflections of the society and values we have become. Ask people what they devour every night on TV and i will tell you who we are.
graham patison | 02 February 2013


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