United we stand

The recent controversy about the ABC has been studied as an exercise in politics, as a lesson in handling criticism and as an exercise in free speech. It may also be part of a larger cultural shift in the way governments see themselves in relation to the people they govern.

The shift is to a strong individualism. It sees people as individuals who create their identity by the choices they make. In this outlook, the exercise of will comes first and reasons follow afterwards.

Individuals choose the moral philosophies and views of the world that suit them. There is no overarching moral universe within which people give shape to their lives.

Governments that accept this view focus on the economic choices that their citizens make. They see people as consumers, customers or clients, and see it as their own business to enlarge the individual’s freedom of choice. For governments, too, the exercise of will is paramount. Good governments ‘have ticker’ and make the ‘hard decisions’; they then choose reasons for their decisions. The subordinate role of argument and reason is being made increasingly clear in the current scrutiny of the decision to make war on Iraq.

Any political philosophy that focuses on individuals needs to take account of social institutions and community groups. Governments see voluntary groups, such as unions, humanitarian organisations and churches, as formed to represent the interests of their individual members. By their nature such groups operate competitively, endeavouring to expand their members’ interests at the expense of others. Any claim they may make to speak of the common good or in the name of a shared humanity is therefore pretentious and suspect.

For this reason, too, no group can properly claim to stand between the government and individuals. Corporate bodies can either be arms of government executing its will, or they can be associations representing the interests of their individual members. So governments resent publicly-funded institutions that claim a higher authority—for example, courts that resist the executive will, or a governor-general who represents the claims of a humanity which judges both governments and individuals. The government also resents the appeal made by community groups to a higher moral order—it will remind church leaders who criticise government policy that they do not represent the views of those in the pews.

This is the significance of the controversy about the ABC. The ABC is funded by the government and so, in the government’s view, should ultimately commend the decisions of government. Instead, it claims the privileges of a free association of individuals, and promotes their interests at government expense. And it masks those interests by appealing to principles of free enquiry, the need for an informed citizenry, and the national interest. Such principles assume a moral order that would constrain the exercise of the government’s will.

At stake here is neither simply the attitude of particular government ministers to the ABC, nor even the future of the organisation, but a view of government and ultimately a view of humanity. If the concepts of the common good, of a common humanity, of the collective conscience, of a community and moral universe within which choice is properly exercised, are vacuous, then the independence of institutions like courts and the ABC is tenuous under governments of any colour. But if these notions are to be defended, we may need to reflect critically on the unqualified authority given in our culture to individual choice.  

Andrew Hamilton sj



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