Australia is a liberal democracy. Liberalism is the political philosophy at the basis of our institutional system. But what does that mean exactly? This is not always easy to say. Liberalism is not a unitary philosophy, but more like a family of theories which, like relatives, resemble each other but are each unique.
There are, however, certain features that all liberal political systems have. At the centre of these is the belief that all human beings are deserving of equal respect and consideration; this translates into such principles as respect for basic liberties, such as freedom of speech, conscience, religion, movement, association, political participation, privacy and so on, as well as some general principles such as acceptance of diversity within society. These principles are universal, they apply to all human beings equally.
Liberal political communities are, however, also characterised by distinctive national cultures, they are states, they have borders, languages, histories and traditions. A distinctiveness most of us value and wish to protect. Australia, therefore, like all western liberal democracies, is at the same time a community with a specific identity and culture and a deep political commitment to respecting all human beings equally.
These two elements in the make-up of Australia can be in tension. A commitment to respecting all human beings equally can sometimes be at odds with protecting and nourishing the identity and culture of the community at any given point in time. This is to a degree inevitable. And when people feel their identity threatened they tend to close up on the world outside. This closure can be seen in the Australian response to migration pressure and refugee flows, as well as in the recent challenges to multiculturalism as a policy to deal with diversity within the community.
This tension, however, may be less deep than apparent at first. For what does it mean to protect our culture and identity?
Australia, like most liberal democracies is a very diverse society, it has always been so. Australians practice different religions, speak different languages have diverse ethnic backgrounds. So what is it that we all have in common? What is it that makes us all Australians? What we all share is our belonging to the same political community, a political community with a specific history and political culture to which we are all committed. But this political culture is a liberal culture, to be sure a specific Australian version of liberalism, but liberalism never the less.
What we share therefore is our commitment to a liberal set of political values which bind us to respecting all human beings equally. With our diverse backgrounds this is all we can be called to share.
Australian values have meant, nationally, respect for fundamental freedoms and an unequivocal acceptance of diversity. They include the right of participation in our political institutions, wealth of resources and wide reaching opportunities, often embodied in the motto “a fair go for all”. But our commitment to equal respect for all human beings binds us also to a decent treatment of those escaping from desperately poor and dangerous circumstances, as well as a responsibility to the global poor beyond our borders.
In our treatment of these most vulnerable of our fellow humans, as well as in the temptation to abandon our acceptance of diversity within out country, Australia may find itself betraying the values it champions. Doing so in the defence of our identity and culture is self-contradictory, for our identity as a nation is deeply bound up with these same values.
It is not only our political values we are betraying, but the very core of our own common identity and culture. If in protecting our common heritage we cannot defend principles of freedom and respect for all people then we must seriously ask ourselves what it is that we are so tenaciously holding onto.
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