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Orr, Graeme --- "Voluntarism: Ambition or service? Peter Costello on civil society" [2003] AltLawJl 60; (2003) 28(4) Alternative Law Journal 197


Ambition or service? Peter Costello on civil society

GRAEME ORR[*] ponders the vision of civil society recently articulated by the Treasurer.

John Howard may have gazumped him, but with federal Labor moribund, Peter Costello remains Prime Minister in waiting. As part of his efforts to humanise himself and articulate a broader political philosophy, the Treasurer has made several well reported speeches in praise of 'social capital' and voluntarism.[1] Full of bywords such as social engagement, trust and tolerance, his is a call to a certain vision of civil society, as a space between nuclear family and the state. His is an explicit appeal to people to give more time and energy to voluntary associations.

Costello has been criticised, even lampooned, over these speeches. Of course some of his rhetoric is cheap. For instance, he takes more explicit digs at Laborites for using the term 'community'-as if it were a Bolshevik cloak for the 'collective' rather than a bland third-wayism-than he does making any criticism of the intolerance of the right. But he is a party politician after all. And yes, the speeches are short on intellectual ballast, apart from the odd, unreflective nod in the direction of Fukuyama. But they are speeches after all, not dissertations, and the topic is inherently woolly.

Further, it is true that his position might easily collapse into the kind of voluntarist, charity state that our Prime Minister believes in. A land where individual responsibility transcends social responsibility. A nation where governments privatise essential services like prisons, medicine and education whilst making a virtue of 'breaching' welfare recipients and giving the odd homily to CEOs to consider moderating their obscene salaries.

Costello laments a culture of disengagement, but cannot bring himself to admit that that goes hand in hand with hyper-capitalism, where every human interaction comes to be seen as a transaction. In his Bolte lecture, he links a loss of 'a sense of belongingess' to an obsession with belongings. But the analysis, as well as the tone, is pure Thoreau. He reflexively uses the occasion to celebrate society as the creation of individuals, not social groups. Yet later he praises (enforced) work-for-the-dole as a means of generating a sense of mutual obligation. He moralises about the virtues of associations but constructs not even the simplest policy program in support of them - easing the GST burden on not-for-profits would be a start.

But we must hope that Costello's commitment to a truly tolerant society, of the sort championed by his brother Tim, genuinely survived his shift out of Baptism which occurred when he married into Sydney's Liberal elite and embarked on a legal, then political career. For the alternative is a further solidification of a society where trust and ethics are essentially private affairs, and governments lie about the basis for wars or asylum seekers.

Naivete about Associations

The concern I have with Costello's 'associationalism' is a much simpler one. It is that he spouts a view of the association as if it were necessarily a vehicle for community-mindedness. It is not just a naive mistake. After all, in his individualistic worldview there is no reason why people should volunteer, except out of self-interest or a sense of obligation instilled from birth. It is also a disingenuous mistake. Costello's own life - indeed that of most politicians-belies this naivete. Political parties are, at root, just associations. And they remind us that associations can breed overweening ambition and ego as much as they can channel engagement with and service to others.

Costello was a successful student politician of no-fixed­ ideology (apart from his aversion to the hard Left). He had a heavy involvement in ALP circles for some years before signing up with the Young Liberals. We need not see this as pure insincerity. As his biographer, Tracey Aubin, explains, he did, unwittingly or otherwise, use the goodwill of more pastorally minded Evangelical Union students as his initial powerbase, and then the Social Democratic right of the ALP as a training ground. However, his political positions were not purchased off a rack. His conservative Baptist roots gave him his enthusiasm for individual responsibility and self­ reliance.

Costello's early career, however, bears the hallmarks of opportunism. Of a love of politics, as a game, rather than an adherence to convictions or to a belief in public service per se. In this he is nothing special: just a polished version of the hundreds of self-labelled 'moderate' figures who cut their teeth on campus politics each year. These are the fellows who put the 'animal' into Aristotle's description of human beings as inherently 'political animals'.

Is ego a dirty word? Yes, and no. Obviously, without driven people to drive them, social movements would be mere ideals and social change stillborn. Representative government, as we practise it, cannot exist without political parties acting in part as machinery to filter and train candidates in the 'arts of persuasion and leadership. We cannot neuter politics by asking that it limit itself to cordial pamphleteering.

But modern political parties, particularly those which have jettisoned ideology, risk being nothing more than slick electoral machines, skilled in the arts of media management and targeting the mythical median voter in marginal electorates. Though it is hard to prise accurate figures out of them, Dean Jaensch estimates that the ALP's membership has dropped fourfold and the Liberal Party threefold since the 1950s. A key cause is the fact that ordinary members­ grass roots activists seeking to promote social change, social members wanting just to engage with fellow members of their neighbourhood and staunch supporters who live to be part of something bigger on polling day - have left in disillusioned droves.

This is not meant as a personal critique of Costello. Certainly the scope of his vision of civic society is limited, typically to the groups that dominated his youth (religious, sporting, political) or who will guarantee his future ('Rotary and Lions group[s], Scouts and Guides ... the CFA and SES, the Young Farmers' Associations ...'). Yet as a young lawyer he helped the Prison Fellowship and a soup kitchen.

But it is to say that associations are not empty shells. They are as likely to be captured by individual ambition as to be loci of community service and engagement. And in this, political parties are just the most obvious examples. Anyone who has witnessed or been caught up in the egoistical, often self-destructive politicking that can engulf the smallest co-operative, tennis club or committee will know this.

[*] Graeme Orr teaches law at Griffith University, Brisbane.

©2003 Graeme Orr

[1] Peter Costello, 'Building Social Capital' (Address to the Sydney Institute, Parliament House, Sydney, 16 July 2003); Peter Costello, 'The Spirit of the Volunteer' (Inaugural Sir Henry Bolte Lecture, Caulfield Racecourse, Melbourne, 16 August 2001).

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