The values debate we don’t have to have

My following article appears in today’s Crikey newsletter:

We live in an age where political insecurity is projected through the “values” debate. When politicians want to instil calm in the electorate, they preach about shared ideas, Australian mateship, tolerance, a fair go, religious freedom and freedom of speech. These are all noble ideals in a democracy but who truly decides what values should be sacrosanct in Australia?

During my recent trip to Queensland, I noticed an article on this subject by the Noosa News Editor Frank Wilkie. “Looks like the shiny bums have gone ga-ga and fallen A over T in love with Aussie values”, he wrote. “The pollies have been busier than one-armed bricklayers in Baghdad trying to outdo each other on who’s the most fair dinkum.”

Wilkie was clearly cynical about the real purpose behind the “values” debate. “This stoush about values may be a deadest barbie-stopping dud-dropper”, he scoffed, “but vows to obey and police the law may be all we need.” His commentary was more sensible than the vast majority of pontificators in the broadsheet press.

Suspicion towards the political elite – the individuals, after all, defining “values” for us all – is experienced by voters across the Western world.

Sir Alistair Graham is the UK’s Commissioner on Standards in Public Life, a position he took on in 2004. He wrote in Britain’s conservative Daily Mail in mid-September that the political system was in danger of being further eroded because sleaze and scandals were overwhelming public debate:

Why don’t we trust our politicians? And what can be done to restore that trust? These are pressing questions for all involved in public life.

The results of a national survey by the Commission on Standards in Public Life two years ago showed that less than a quarter of people generally trusted Government ministers to tell the truth.

They were 15th in the pecking order of professions, just above estate agents.

Today our second survey confirms this low level of trust. In fact, Government ministers now hover just below estate agents.

Graham’s report is highly relevant in Australia. When the British people believe that politicians are out of touch with the general public and rarely explain the real reasons behind their actions, our media and political elite should take notice.

During the current debate over “values”, it may be wise to question the real motives behind the politician’s sudden interest in shared values. Rest assured it’s not about keeping intolerance out.