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When mines and football clubs betray the common good


Red and black starburstThe common good can seem a very milky-tea concept — too bloodless for the real world. That suspicion might grow when we realise it is central to Catholic Social Teaching, even if it now more often appears under its more martial name of solidarity.

But for all that it is an important idea, one which we need if we are to make sense of phenomena as disparate as the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) findings on corruption in the awarding of mining licenses, the initial report of the NSW chief scientist on coal seam gas mining, and the daily alarums and excursions in the drugs and footballers epic.

Behind the notion of the common good lies the conviction that human beings are not simply individuals who choose to opt into society, but are social beings who thrive only through their relationships with other human beings. A consequence of this insight is that society needs to be ordered in such a way that the good of each and all of its members is secured, especially of the most disadvantaged.

It follows that all human organisations have social responsibilities that extend beyond the members and shareholders to all whom they affect by their actions, and so to society as a whole. In a word they must serve the common good.

Although the social responsibility of business is often dismissed as a utopian principle, its importance can be seen when it is flouted.

The ICAC report describes corrupt dealings in which a government minister acted to benefit a colleague and a friend in granting a mining license. Four businessmen were also found to have acted corruptly in concealing, for personal gain, relevant information about a company in which they were major investors from the director of a company of which some were also directors.

The heart of this affair is the assumption that representatives of government and members of parliament will not serve their private interests when carrying out their office. Nor will officers of public companies for their individual or group interest conceal information to which others have a right.

People's trust in government and in commerce depends on the respect that their representatives show for the common good. If that trust disappears society will be fragmented. For that reason the corrupt behaviour of business people and of government ministers is seen as a betrayal of trust and is held in public opprobrium. It undermines the common good.

The initial report of the chief scientist of New South Wales into coal seam gas mining is notable because it is a model of how the pursuit of the common good should be conducted.

The enquiry followed widespread public controversy. Landowners, farmers, local communities and environmentalists expressed their concern at the effect of mining on health and on water supplies. Others saw its economic benefits both through local employment and for the public purse. The enquiry had to sift the claims of each group and assess under what conditions, if at all, the risks of mining would be overcome.

The interim report paid careful attention to the issues and the risks involved in mining, asking how they could be minimised. It recommended that before mining began conversation should involve all interested parties, and that thorough research should be done on aquifers and on the geology of the local area. Information should be shared to form a data base from which the effects of mining could be measured.

The report is exemplary in asking how the good of each person and group can be sought within the framework of serving the present and future good of society. It tellingly emphasises respectful and effective communication with all the people affected by mining, transparent sharing of information and effective regulation. These things are the stuff of service of the common good.

After these examples of how the common good is betrayed and how it is pursued, a trivial example of the shambles that its neglect leaves behind. The drugs in football affair illustrates what happens when the interests of one particular team are put ahead of care for its players and for the competition of which it forms part. Eventually the group allegiance crumbles as individuals look out for themselves.

Winning is not everything. To win you need people who will want to play with you and a safe place to play.

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Starburst image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, ICAC, coal-seam gas, corruption, drugs in sport, Essendon Football Club, AFL



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Existing comments

The common good is milky tea? I would have said it was a very good wine shared by everyone, made preferably from best Cabernet or Pedro Ximenez grapes. The common good is what is missing in our national debates about almost every issue you care to name. Our society operates these days according to me, me me, not us, us, us, let alone us and them. The irony is writ large at election time that we live in a Commonwealth. Do we really?

IN VINO VERITAS | 08 August 2013  

On this occasion Andrew I cannot agree with you .the report is not a model to move forward because the common good is represented by no one .Only pressure groups and people with deep individual interest are represented .In our democracy we elect a government to represent all of us and we should let them govern .When they fail to act in the common good as in the NSW example then we need and have the process to find them out .

john crew | 08 August 2013  

Uncontrolled individualism is a destructive force that hurts everyone., especially the vulnerable it is a giant step back from what Jesus had in mind, to side line the self-centred ego and work for the common good. Perhaps we need to move on from Mary MacKillop's canonisation and explore her spirituality more deeply She often reminded her Sisters : "Let the general good alone absorb our thoughts"

leo kane | 08 August 2013  

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