MALCOLM Turnbull had a party-room victory but a god-awful week, and it wasn’t because his approval plunged in Monday’s Newspoll. His energy policy is back in the mire, and Tony Abbott is being – as […]
PERSONAL freedom is a precious commodity in modern liberal democracies. Well, when it suits those in power.
For them it means freedom from interference with business, freedom from government impost on making money and freedom from regulation. Ironically, these same advocates for their own freedom so often use moral grounds to restrict the personal freedoms of others. Consider women’s control over their own fertility, the place of women in society and sexuality.
Freedom is just one part of the picture. The catch-cry of the French Revolution was “liberté, égalité, fraternité”. These three pillars have been seriously eroded nationally and internationally as a laissez-faire approach to market economics and a swing to conservatism distorts liberty, ignores fraternity and undermines egalitarianism.
Consider égalité. The growing discrepancy in wealth within Australia and across the world highlights national and international failure regarding equity. Illustrative of the loss of this principle is the report early this year by development charity Oxfam showing the world’s richest eight people hold as much wealth as the poorest 50 per cent.
Oxfam pointed to the cause as “aggressive wage restraint, tax dodging and the squeezing of producers by companies”. They added “businesses were too focused on delivering ever-higher returns to wealthy owners and top executives”. It is not just the poorer countries. The World Economic Forum also released its own “inclusive growth and development report” in January showing median income had fallen by an average of 2.4 per cent between 2008 and 2013 across 26 advanced nations. Is this égalité?
The erosion of égalité is directly related to the modern philosophy of neo-liberalism which now dominates the Liberal Party locally and nationally – although Australian neo-liberals prefer to call themselves conservatives. Their idea of freedom applies primarily to money. Hardly a sitting week goes by in any Australian parliament without a pitch for further deregulation, demands for cuts in taxation and another limitation on the power of workers.
Ironically, conservatives who demand their own freedom from interference, have overwhelmingly been willing to interfere with women’s control over their own fertility and only a couple of decades ago argued for homosexuality to be illegal and now oppose marriage equality.
The proposed $122m postal vote on marriage equality illustrates the desperate measures they will take to maintain interference in others’ lives. Knowing they will lose on the floor of parliament they are desperately hoping ordinary people will get sick of the debate and will not make the effort to vote.
Liberty also applies to freedom of speech. Well! When it suits. The anger with the ABC and willingness to interfere illustrates the point. The current government is working hard to undermine the public broadcaster. This is in marked contrast to the support for domination of the Australian commercial media by a small number of wealthy mates.
Ironically, the argument used to undermine the principle of “fraternité“ invariably invokes the responsibility of the individual. The idea is that the individual should work hard and take care of themselves. The reality is fraternity demands an appropriate balance between personal responsibility and good government stewardship. Personal responsibility is the foundation stone for arguments against universal health care. Look after yourself. Shift government responsibility to the individual. Create small government. Let no-one interfere with what you are doing. If they do, invoke the “Nanny State”.
The Nanny State argument distorts liberty by framing it around interference. As Philip Pettit pointed out, it allows domination by the elite. It is fuel for the fire of neo-liberal philosophy. Being dominant is the backbone of conservatism. To truly live in a free society requires not just one, but all of the concepts of “liberté, égalité, fraternité”.
The outcome just might see a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. It might include having governments take their stewardship role regarding fraternity and equity more seriously rather than attempting to shift responsibility on to individuals who cannot manage or are down on their luck. It just might allow people the freedom to make their own decisions about who they love or allowing them control over their own bodies.
Michael Moore was an independent member of the ACT Legislative Assembly (1989 to 2001) and was minister for health.