The Federal Treasurer, Peter Costello, has sparked an intriguing debate with a speech in Melbourne this week in which he called for a return to the “spirit of the volunteer”.
Delivering the inaugural Sir Henry Bolte lecture in tribute to the former Liberal Premier of Victoria between 1955-72, Costello outlined traditional elements of Liberal Party thinking, derided faith in the capacity of government to “solve any kind of problem”, and called for people to undertake more voluntary work in the community.
Costello spoke of the globalised Australian economy and economic progress since the middle of the last century: “Our living standards are higher than they have ever been, our standard of housing, our cars, our domestic appliances, our health services are better than they have been in previous decades, and our economic abundance has increased.”
But the Liberal Party’s deputy leader painted a picture of Australians disengaged from their communities: “Many people feel they are under more pressure than ever before, they feel they are working harder than ever before and they miss the sense of community that comes with a gentler pace of life.”
Developing this theme, Costello warned against romanticising the past, questioning whether people were “really happier without the automatic washing machine when they hand scrubbed their clothes or fed them through the wringer.”
But, Costello claimed, “there is this sense that if there was less home entertainment, maybe less TV, video, Gameboy, CD-rom and internet then the children might spend more time playing games outside with their neighbours and the parents in the street would know each other’s names and the sense of belongingness would increase.”
In his public appearances in recent times, Costello has spoken of the choices economic prosperity has brought. He frequently uses the somewhat bizarre analogy of coffee:
“What economic prosperity has brought us is choices. So many choices that sometimes they are overwhelming. Once upon a time you could walk into a shop and order a cup of coffee. Now there is drink in, take out, coffee, mocha, columbian, cappachino, latte, or double soy chino. Will you take that with or without sugar, equal or nutrisweet?”
The man seen by many as the next leader of the Liberal Party argued that the “dazzling array” of choices, including technological advances that have meant “the cyber chat room replaces the neighbourhood fence as the place for a social conversation”, is resulting in a loss of “the shared experience”.
Costello then claimed that “at this point somebody is going to ask, “Well – what is the Government going to do about that?”.” Whilst to some this might seem to be a non-sequitur, Costello then put forward his main argument:
“And here lies one of our biggest problems. The expectation that the Government should solve all of our problems or can solve all of our problems is a big problem.
Governments can deliver services, they should deliver reliable transport services, and high quality health services, and strong educational services. But Governments can’t deliver friendly relationships, harmony between parents and children, happy marriages.
I think there has been a tendency for Government to encourage the belief that it can solve any kind of problem. This inevitably leads to disappointment. People should not look to Government to deal with issues that it is not designed to deal with. I have always been a believer in limited Government. I don’t think it can solve the deep core issues of personal relationships, identity, family and love. If you limit the Government to what it can do it is likely to do that better and likely to do less damage than if it intervenes in areas where it has no competence.”
Costello then derided the actions of the Whitlam Government between 1972-75 in building Community Centres around Australia, claiming that in generations past individuals would have done these things themselves.
He called for a greater emphasis on personal responsibility:
“And that is a phrase that you don’t hear too often in the political lexicon these days: personal responsibility. There was Henry Bolte at 18, Secretary of the local race club and the church and captain of the football team. He wasn’t sitting around in Skipton waiting for the Government to build the community.
We need to remind ourselves that there is a whole sphere of life outside Government. And this is where important personal decisions are made and personal emotions are felt. There is a place where Government ends and the local church, or the family, or the Immigrant Elderly Citizen Association takes over. This is the place of the shared experience and the voluntary commitment. This is the place of the community. This is the place of the volunteer.”
Costello’s speech has caused an interesting set of reactions. Some have applauded his words as a sign of a more compassionate Liberal leader-in-waiting, offering a change from the stolid conservatism of John Howard.
Others have argued that the theme on volunteerism has been pushed for some time by Howard and that both men are essentially social conservatives who yearn for a return to mythical values of the 1950s.
Some believe that the speech is part of a strategy by Costello to stake out his claim to the Liberal leadership, either as Opposition Leader following defeat by the end of the year, or as Prime Minister following re-election and another 18 months as deputy to Howard.
There is a view that the government is seen as “mean” by many in the community. In this sense, both Howard and Costello have been working to project a softer image in recent months.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Mr. Wesley Noffs, of the Ted Noffs Foundation, a charitable organisation that has 50 volunteers working in administrative roles and in opportunity shops, rejected Costello’s claim that expectations of government is a big problem:
“Government can’t renege on its responsibilities and that responsibility is to provide for those in need in the community. Government does have a responsibility to solve problems.”
A superb analysis by Michelle Grattan argues “that we know a lot less about this ‘new’ Liberal than we think we do”. Grattan claims the speech could easily have been delivered by Howard, that it “was replete with nostalgia and warnings about the limits of government … that’s not a Liberal ‘wet’.”
Grattan argues that there is little evidence of Costello being a more moderate Liberal, citing his late conversion to the republican cause and his strong opposition to a formal apology to the stolen generations of Aborigines.
Some correspondents have simply ridiculed Costello’s speech as proving that he and his government are out of touch with what is actually happening in the community. Jennifer Hewett said:
“Such a pity I missed Peter Costello’s speech on the need for more volunteerism the other night. I was otherwise engaged in a meeting of parents discussing how to prepare for the school fundraising fete …
“… I found suburban and small-town America to be a seething mass of volunteerism, for example, quite undermining the media image of an impersonal, disconnected society.
“But the same thing happens every day everywhere in Australia too. What struck me as quite odd was Peter Costello’s helpful suggestion that we should all spend an hour a week doing volunteer work. And the rest, Peter, and the rest.
“… It’s also true that there’s always plenty more to be done. Many people don’t know their neighbours and feel remote from their communities. Many people do feel lonely.
But let’s not underestimate the enormous amount of volunteer energy that seeps into all our lives, helps build community bonds and unlikely friendships and exists all around us if we only look.
See you at the fete, Peter.”
Some letter writers have attacked Costello for speaking in contradiction to the actions of the coalition government he has served in for the past 5 years:
“Why would he think that we should be kind to others when his Government encourages us to believe that the unemployed are bludgers, that someone who has breached Centrelink’s rules is rorting the system, that the pathetic family which risks its life to come here is just a queue jumper.”
Dr. Don Edgar, a social policy consultant and author of a new book about rethinking government and rebuilding community, was equally sceptical:
“The answer is not just more volunteerism, or at least not the sort of spontaneous do-gooding that Costello exhorts us to. People need more than moralistic appeals to social duty if we are to build communities that are less reliant on servicing from the top down. Government needs to resource communities so those networks of mutual support can grow.”
Shaun Carney, author of a recently-released biography, “Costello, the new Liberal”, sees Costello’s call for more volunteerism as arising from his Melbourne suburban and Baptist upbringing in the 1960s and 1970s:
“Costello’s involvement with the church, which during his late teens extended to lay preaching at Victoria’s coastal holiday spots during summer holidays, continued in his early 20s, organising Saturday night socials and Bible camps. Throughout Costello’s formative years, social activity, family and faith were part of a moveable feast. Help and spiritual succor were provided by self-motivated individuals getting up and pitching in. Those who gave could also expect to receive.”
However, the most trenchant criticism of Costello this week was delivered by a former soul-mate, the former head of the Federal Treasury and National Party Senator, John Stone. Writing more generally of Costello’s views, Stone claimed that the real distinction between and within political parties these days is over what he called a “cultural divide”. Criticising Costello’s republican leanings, his Reconciliation march, lack of criticism of the High Court’s “judicial activism”, and other political sins which Stone said had alienated culturally conservative electors, he then claimed:
“Howard, his other manifest deficiencies notwithstanding, has kept their faith alive these past five years. Could they now go on voting for a party led by a young man whose cultural views appear more in line with those of Beazley than of Howard?
The speech by Costello is already history as the parties continue to move into election mode, but the debate this week over political, economic and social values offered something rarely seen in the Australian media: a conversation about fundamental ideas.