Ideas@TheCentre – The Centre for Independent Studies


Ideas@TheCentre brings you ammunition for conversations around the table.  3 short articles from CIS researchers emailed every Friday on the issues of the week.

What’s happening to our live-and-let-live culture?

Peter Kurti

12 July 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

Free speech is being closed down in the name of preventing ‘hate speech’; bonds of trust in commercial life are broken, and religion is now so divisive that a new law is needed to protect religious freedom.

Dissent from the prevailing new orthodoxies about gender and sexual orientation is virtually impossible without attracting opprobrium and venom — just ask Israel Folau.

All this provokes a persistent feeling among the more conservatively minded that the warp and weft of the cultural and social fabric have altered in discomfiting ways.

Defenders of such cultural change, however, say the culture is not broken but simply responding to new sensitivities — just as it did in fixing behaviour that discriminated on the grounds of race or gender.

Two related features lie at the heart of this tension about cultural shift, as I outline in my latest paper: Cracking Up? Culture and the Failure of Virtue.

First, there is a move away from the communal, coupled with a civic readiness to live with difference towards the individual and the demand that all behaviour deemed to harm individual dignity be made unlawful.

Second, the emerging primacy of the individual has been accompanied by the eclipse of the moral language of virtue by the emotional language of values — which is wholly unsuited for moral discourse.

Virtues are objective moral norms that are both shared and personal. They are shared because there is general agreement about what a virtue such as justice is and what it represents.

They are personal because once an individual knows what, for example, the virtue of justice is, they can make a personal evaluation of how they stand in relation to that particular virtue.

Values, however, are simply emotional statements about personal beliefs, feelings or attitudes which cannot be the basis for shared meaning because they are personal and subjective.

When reason gives way to emotion, common standards of behaviour quickly erode, and the very language we use in civil and moral discourse begins to fragment – and soon enough, it loses its meaning.

The fracturing of our culture is due, in large part, to a crisis of moral authority. We have a distorted view of morality because instead of being guided by reason, we are now guided by emotion.

We need to pursue a renewed understanding of culture as that which expresses a shared, common vision for our human and social flourishing that is passed on in our traditions to future generations.

We must refuse to equate emotional claims with moral claims, and we must call for a reorientation from the personal to the communal. The health of our society — indeed, of our culture — depends upon it.

This is an edited excerpt of a longer oped published in The Weekend Australian as Israel Folau: Moral compass all askew as virtue is eclipsed by values.

Human rights on Q&A

Tom Switzer

12 July 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

The promotion of human rights is a noble cause, one not to be cynically dismissed. But acting on it – if one is concerned to be effective and not merely feel virtuous – is more complicated than many human rights activists recognise.

As former CIS senior fellow Owen Harries and I have argued, individuals and special interests are free to give absolute and unqualified priority, but governments are not. “For the activist, human rights are a cause. But when they are incorporated into a government’s foreign policy, they become an interest among many,” we argued in 2011. “Their claims have to be balanced against other interests, many of which have a compelling practical as well as moral importance: for example, peace, security, order, prosperity. The place human rights will place in the hierarchy of interests will vary according to the circumstances.”

I once again made these banal points on the ABC’s Q&A this week in response to a question about the Chinese Communist regime’s brutal treatment of the Uyghur population in north-west China. My panel colleagues – Labor Senator Penny Wong, Liberal Senator Scott Ryan and ANU defence intellectual Hugh White – agreed. However, Diana Sayed, formerly of Amnesty International, charged we were indifferent to the fate of Muslims. See video (54m 45s).

Never mind the many occasions in recent decades when the US and its allies put their men and women in harm’s way – from Kuwait and Somalia to Bosnia and Kosovo to Iraq and Afghanistan – to help people suffering from tyranny or famine who happened to be Muslims.

Moreover, what complicates human rights policy — what makes it not a simple act of consistency, but a complicated one of judgement and discrimination — is the variability of circumstance. It’s easier for Canberra, for instance, to take a more moralistic approach to Zimbabwe or Syria, states with which Australia has few trade links, than it is for us to be hard on China, our most important trade partner.

If we sacrificed our relationship with Beijing on behalf of the Uyghurs, we’d destroy our economy without having any positive impact on China.

Taxpayers deserved a break

Simon Cowan

12 July 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

Last week’s passing of the government’s major tax package is good news in a number of different ways. Stage 3 of the package will see a substantial flattening of marginal tax rates, with all taxpayers earning between $45,000 and $200,000 (pretty much all full-time workers) facing the same marginal tax rate of 30%.

The government can no longer be accused of shirking substantive economic reform. And assuming that the tax cuts remain in place to be implemented — which is not a certainty — these reforms will be some of the most substantial since the Golden era of the 80s, 90s and early 2000s.

Morrison has also succeeded where both the previous Labor government (through the 2010 Henry Tax Review) and the current Coalition government (through the abandoned 2015 Tax White Paper) failed.

Though this is not a grand bargain tax reform of old, and despite it being tempered by the fact that most of the tax cuts’ benefit is simply returning accumulated bracket creep, the government has succeeded in passing reforms that will lower the tax burden.

But perhaps more importantly, the government can claim to have changed the narrative in the tax space.

For years, the only measure that seemed to matter in terms of tax reform was ‘can we make each element of the system more progressive?’ Other goals of tax reform — including efficiency and simplicity — were abandoned for the simple goal of trying to soak as much money out of the ‘rich’ as possible.

Advocates for lowering the overall tax burden, or for improving the system for existing tax payers, had a great deal of difficulty in getting political attention. Higher taxes and the so-called rich ‘paying their fair share’ seemed to be all that mattered.

Right up to the end of the debate on these cuts, consistent with this narrative, much of the focus was on how they are supposedly unacceptably regressive. Or how they delivered greater tax cuts than just returning bracket creep — as if that is a bad thing.

Tax cuts should reduce the overall tax burden — anyone who feels they don’t pay enough in tax is always welcome to pay more voluntarily. It never seems to work that way though, does it? It always seems to be about other people paying more. The default assumption that government revenue should only go up is a terrible way to order society.

Poor people may indeed need more help, and government could always do better in prioritising spending, but taxpayers deserve a break every now and again too.

This is an edited extract of a longer oped that was published in the Canberra Times as Scott Morrison’s tax reform has succeeded where other governments have failed.