Civic repair key to recovery

Peter Kurti

18 June 2020 | Ideas@theCentre

Australia is beginning post-covid recovery from a better position than many other countries. Yet the country nonetheless faces an unprecedented challenge of rebuilding prosperity. Economists have pored over emergency funding proposals intended to sustain the economy’s weakened heartbeat. But it’s not just about the numbers.

As I outline in Civil Society After Covid: On re-building a virtuous civic culture, civic repair is equally important for recovery; attending to bonds of community strained during lockdown and to the spirit of mutual obligation lying at the heart of mateship.

Community, informed by recognition and acceptance of that obligation, plays a key role in shaping the lives of individual citizens and the relations with the state.

Classical liberalism has come under widespread attack in many Western democracies because of what is seen, unfairly, as its singular emphasis on individual freedom alone.

But classical liberalism has never just stopped at individual liberty. It recognises that liberty only finds its fullest expression in a society marked by concern for the well-being of others.

The challenge for classical liberalism — often attacked for spruiking greed and selfishness — is to re-state its historic commitment to strong civil society and to a strong civic culture.

Civil society comprises the network of voluntary, civic associations that build civic trust, forge bonds between individuals, and cultivate habits of living.

Government action in response to the pandemic — however defensible — strained the bonds of civil society and weakened those obligations that define community life.

Strictly-enforced limits on public meetings, gatherings of family and friends, unerals and weddings, meant that people bound by common interests were unable to meet.

As post-covid recovery begins, economic assistance alone will not be enough to restore that civic culture. For one thing, it will cost too much and, if prolonged, will be unaffordable.

The public mood is for a renewal of a community life supported by a spirit of neighbourliness, trust, and mutual support These are the habits of life that we can call ‘civic virtue’.

No simple prescription of policies exists by which governments can cultivate civic virtue. Indeed, it might be best for governments not to take action or — at least, not more action.

Yet government can promote renewal of civic culture by ensuring adequate levels of funding to support charities and not-for-profit organisations through the economic crisis.

These organisations provide essential services across various sectors of the Australian economy to those in need. They warrant government support for this crucial role.

Work must now begin to forge stronger communities to help bind neighbours and to provide for those whose lives have been disrupted by coronavirus.

Restoration of a virtuous civic culture must be a priority so that civil society again perform effectively the essential roles upon which the wellbeing of every Australian depends.

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