Opinion article

If the fair go goes, where does that take us?

Tim Gartrell reflects on CEDA's Community pulse survey and examines what the findings say about Australia's embedded notion of the fair go. 

By the standards of the late 19th century, Australia was one of the most prosperous, fairest nations on earth. Indeed, Australia was considered the white, working man’s paradise and it was in this context that our, now deeply embedded, notion of the fair go was born.

Of course, this notion was a flawed one – there being not much of a fair go for the First Peoples, nor Chinese labourers nor women. But for many workers Australia did offer a much higher level of shared prosperity than other nations.

Although lopsided, this notion of fairness drove our community to agitate for and achieve progress we should be proud of. Including votes for women, the eight hour day, wage justice, a social safety net, a first rate universal public health system, access to public education and successful multiculturalism.

We have even made the first steps towards righting the wrongs inflicted on First Peoples, although in this area we still have a long way to go. Late last year we overwhelmingly voted YES to marriage equality and, yet again, it was the notion of a fair go and equality that brought about the right result.

It’s through this longer lens of history that the first CEDA Pulse survey should be viewed – and viewed with some trepidation. A nation that prides itself on the fair go now has only five per cent of respondents saying they, or people like them, have “gained a lot” from our unprecedented 26 years of uninterrupted economic growth – a huge chunk say they have either gained a little (45 per cent) or nothing at all (44 per cent).

And people are still looking for the basic building blocks of a fair society – a reliable, low cost healthcare system and essential services, affordable and stable housing and job security.

To me, these priorities show a hankering for the things that have made Australia great. A stable and democratic society, shared values of fairness, a sensible balance between the public and private sectors and an evolution-not-revolution approach to progress.

There’s always been political contest. It’s not as though these achievements have always been gained through consensus. But once they are established in the Australian consciousness the public are reluctant to move away – just ask conservative administrations that have gone too far on workplace laws, privatisation and cuts to services.

Is the unpredictability, populism and dalliance with new, extreme political parties or candidates that we’re seeing in other countries (like Italy, Austria and the United States) something we have to prepare ourselves for here?

There are worrying signs. It’s not as though our system is humming along nicely. Five changes in Prime Ministers in the last decade and a Senate that’s more a game of cross bench musical chairs than a well-functioning house of review.

Then, there’s the slow erosion of the major parties' votes and their declining membership levels. Not to mention voters experimenting with renegades like Clive Palmer at one election then dumping them like hotcakes at the next.

Add the not-so-new era of social media. Punching someone in the nose will always trump (yes, pun intended) a sensible, rational and measured debate about reform. The last-word-after-too-many-drinks-at-the-dinner-party declarations that pass for debate on Twitter will not bring us together to solve the problems we face.
It seems to me that in this context business has some serious choices. Do you invest in the tough and complex task of engaging with the community to put in place real change, based on an agenda that has substance, is mutually beneficial and can address the growing gaps in our society? Or do you take a “if you can’t beat them join them” attitude to the Twitter warriors and amp up the spin, aggro and try to astro-turf – that’s businesses creating fake grassroots movements – your way out of strife?

The results of the survey signal that a tectonic shift is underway. If the fair go is no longer a lived experience we’re in for some serious quakes and maybe even the odd tsunami. CEDA’s Pulse should be our early warning system and we’d be wise to take heed.
About the authors

Tim Gartrell

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Tim Gartrell is an experienced, winning, national campaign director. He has been the Campaign Director for two of Australia’s biggest votes in our times – Kevin07 and the historic YES Equality Campaign in 2017. Tim’s career spans three decades in campaigning, advocacy, external relations, and communications. His leadership roles have included Campaign Director of the YES Equality Campaign; Joint Campaign Director Recognise; CEO of Generation One; CEO of Auspoll; and National Secretary and National Campaign Director for the Australian Labor Party. 

Tony Abbott

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