The art of associating together
Thank you Dr Goldie for your kind introduction to the Civil Society 20 or C20, as it is commonly known.
I was reflecting on your words of introduction then and I was reflecting on the apparently warm reception that my colleague the Foreign Minister received yesterday and it reminded me of those important words of John F Kennedy in his inaugural address when he said that:
Civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof.
I acknowledge at the outset the traditional owners of the land and I would also like to acknowledge His Excellency, Ambassador of the Republic of South Africa, Mxakato-Diseko, and the Consul General of the United States of America, Mary Warlick.
Finally I would also like to acknowledge the hard work of the C20 Steering Committee led by Tim Costello.
The G20 goal
Ladies and gentlemen, this is a significant C20 Summit, which has an important role in helping to inform the discussions that will occur between world leaders at the G20 Summit in Brisbane later this year.
As you know, the G20’s Australian initiated goal is to lift GDP more than two per cent over five years with country specific strategies.
The importance of the G20 theme is not only the need for economic growth, but for economic growth that benefits all people, lifts living standards and improves quality of life.
As the Australian Prime Minister, Mr Abbott, said at the World Economic Forum this year, the G20 is primarily about people and our task is to create opportunities for our citizens and to end inequality.
The work of civil society
Civil society organisations can be inspirational. Let me provide an example:
In 1978, a Rotarian from Queensland had the idea of immunising children throughout the world against polio.
Rotary International took up the cause.
An estimated 10 million cases of polio have since been prevented.
Rotary worked in partnership with other organs of civil society, with governments and the World Health Organisation.
In March this year, the World Health Organisation certified India a polio-free country:
- India, once described as the epicentre of the polio virus.
- India, where success meant vaccinating 172 million children twice a year, often under extremely challenging conditions.
If this is a stunning story, it is one of many. I note that the focus on individuals and communities is reflected in the themes and workshops at this conference.
In particular, I wish to concentrate my remarks this morning on one aspect of your program, namely, building strong civil institutions. This is a key focus of the current Australian government.
Strong civil institutions are critical for human progress.
In his famous oration to commemorate the Athenians who died in the Peloponnesian War against Sparta, Pericles extolled democracy and praised the ancient city state as the envy of the world.
He reminded his fellow citizens that his democracy comprised not only a constitution with equality before the law and opportunity for all, but the day-to-day relations of Athenians with each other.
It is the “laws themselves” that are obeyed, including the “unwritten laws that it is an acknowledged shame to break.”
Although Pericles did much to extend democracy to the citizens of Athens, many of the greatest thinkers of the time doubted this new form of government. Plato believed that democracy deteriorates into ‘license’ and Aristotle, although less severe, noted that constitutions can be captured by groups interested only in their selfish ends.
The late Professor of the University of Chicago, Jean Bethke Elshtain has written:
Democracy is not simply a set of procedures or a constitution, but an ethos, a spirit, a way of responding, and a way of conducting oneself.
It is the habits, dispositions and culture of people that undergird strong and robust societies. Consequently, a state without public discussion and civic association lacks a vital life-force for its civil society.
Webs of associations, what Edmund Burke referred to as “the little platoons” to which we belong, have become known as civil society.
Civil societies are the relationships and institutions that are neither created nor controlled by the state:
The essential task of civil society – families, neighbourhood life, and the web of religious, economic, educational, and civic associations – is to foster competence and character in individuals, build social trust, and help children become good people and good citizens.
And through their activities they build character in individuals, foster social cohesion in communities and provide positive role models for the next generation.
Alexis De Tocqueville in his famous work Democracy in America observed how the free association of people in countless groups and organisations are the lynchpins of democratic vitality. He wrote:
Among the laws that rule human societies, there is one which seems to me more precise and clear than all others. If men are to remain civilised or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve in the same ratio in which equality of conditions is increased.
Civil society organisations have and continue to teach the lessons of ‘the art of associating together’.
As the Harvard scholar, Mary Ann Glendon writes:
The myriad of associations that generate social norms are the invisible supports of, and the sine qua non for, a regime in which individuals have rights. Neither the older political and civil rights, nor the newer economic and social rights, can be secure in the absence of the social arrangements that induce those who are disadvantaged by the rights of others to accept the restrictions and interferences that such rights entail.
In other words, if we cannot preserve and support the institutions of community in which relationships are developed and nurtured, then we are not merely placing at risk the welfare of many people, including the young and the elderly, we are weakening the very foundations of democracy itself.
Ladies and gentlemen, the opening lines of a Tale of Two Cities have bequeathed us some of the most enduring words of English literature:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness … it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
This observation about the duality of life – about the yin and yang of human existence – is as fresh and relevant today as when first written in 1859.
Dickens was telling us that every advance inevitably generates pressures to retreat;
That every step we take forward spawns a countervailing force pushing backward.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the sphere of demography today.
Ageing populations are bringing challenges and opportunities to all nations.
According to the OECD, the ratio of older people in OECD nations to those in the workforce will double from 19 per cent from 1990 to 38 per cent in the year 2030.
By the same year, Germany’s ratio is expected to soar to 49.2 per cent; in Italy, 48.3 per cent; France 39.7 per cent; and the United States, 38.8 per cent.
Indeed we are witnessing demographic shrinking in some G20 countries.
In Japan, since 2004 the population is falling as well as ageing faster than many others. One prediction has the population of Japan falling from 127 million to about 87 million by the year 2060.
The ageing of the population will compel shifts in the allocation of resources towards retirement incomes, health and aged care services and, in turn, place greater pressure on the shrinking working age populations.
There is no doubt the enhanced life expectancies we now enjoy are a positive in absolute terms.
But it can’t be denied that the longer we live, the greater the pressure our ageing population places on the services we expect from government and from civil society.
The silver lining of longer lifespans is surrounded by a cloud of pressure on the Budget from increased health and pension costs imposed by a growing cohort of seniors.
This is a common challenge that faces most – if not all – G20 member states, along with many other nations.
However that does not mean civil societies have to accept arthritic futures.
Ladies and gentlemen, I believe there are number of opportunities that civil society organisations should raise to challenge fellow citizens and their governments:
First, we have to examine how we can improve participation in the workforce of otherwise marginalised cohorts. This includes a special attention to the participation rates of mature aged jobseekers and those with disabilities and the skilling of younger people.
Second, we have to improve the participation of women in education and in the workforce while supporting fertility rates that reach the 2.1 children per child-bearing aged females.
Third, we have to acknowledge that the orderly flow of skilled and semi-skilled labour through immigration programs will assist both destination countries and source countries. Immigration programs should and can be designed to bring about both economic and humanitarian outcomes, while maintaining public confidence.
Fourth, with the majority of the world’s populations now living in cities, we need to think about ensuring urbanisation creates productive liveable cities for all citizens and that can provide an environmental dividend by reducing pollution and protecting bio-diversity.
Fifth, is to reduce red tape for civil society organisations and ensure welfare systems complement and not blanket civil society.
Many people told me that one of the biggest problems for civil society organisations is the creeping regulation and credentialism that is unduly impeding them.
It is one of the reasons why the Australian Government is moving towards longer contracts for organisations to deliver social programs, including in my portfolio.
It is why we are establishing a new Centre for Excellence for Civil Society to foster good governance of the sector.
Finally, we need to recognise that changing demographics will affect the way civil society agencies and organisations operate. As the Executive Director of the Brotherhood of St Laurence in Australia, Tony Nicholson, recently observed:
The prevailing paradigm of gathering paid professional people around the vulnerable in our community will become unviable in the next twenty years.
The reasons, he said, were because of the impact of ageing populations – and workforce contractions – and the increasing funding pressures.
This is why, in part, we are seeking to encourage volunteering and philanthropic activities in this country.
When considering social security systems, I believe the godfather of the British post-war welfare state, Lord Beveridge, said it succinctly about the kind of balance that should be struck:
The state in organising security should not stifle incentive, opportunity, and responsibility; in establishing a national minimum it should leave room and encouragement for each individual to provide more than that minimum for himself and his family.
It was through civil society, not the welfare state, which Beveridge envisaged that this would occur.
Civil societies help to sustain transparent governance; and ensure social goods, like inclusive employment and well-targeted social infrastructure, are delivered accountably and effectively.
Corruption and tax avoidance
There is one more issue and it will be one of the most important G20 goals and that is to ensure that economies both grow and become more resilient
Nothing undermines resilience – and with it, equality of opportunity – more than corruption and tax avoidance.
These are also issues of great concern here among C20 groups.
Continuing our efforts to combat corruption is of critical importance and remains one of the greatest barriers to both equality and to global growth.
Bribery, evasion and corruption cost all countries money.
At the same time, they firmly entrench poverty and inequality and hinder sustainable development.
Findings related to corruption throughout the globe are staggering.
The World Bank has estimated that the world wide cost of bribery is one trillion US dollars annually.
Global Financial Integrity estimates that in 2011 alone the developing world lost nearly a thousand billion US dollars in illicit outflows, including the proceeds of crime, corruption and tax evasion.
Governments in developed and developing countries alike rely on taxation to fund the infrastructure and services their communities need.
Tax issues to be considered in Brisbane include countering base erosion profit shifting, and ensuring profits are taxed where economic activities deriving the profits are performed.
International tax transparency and global information sharing so that taxpayers with offshore investments comply with their domestic tax obligations are also on the agenda.
Corruption and taxation issues undermine both effective government and civil society, impacting especially on those whom Dr Goldie reminds us is ‘the people who have least’.
Ladies and gentlemen, during Australia’s presidency of the G20 we have developed strong links between the G20 and its engagement groups.
Those of us who have great faith in the skill and endeavours of civil society are unsurprised by the momentum, teamwork and influence for good the C20 steering committee is exerting during 2014.
Thank you for your involvement through this C20 Summit and for your invaluable contributions to the G20 economic forum.
The C20 Summit is civil society’s most significant event in the lead up to the G20 meeting in November and embodies your drive for positive change for all.
It is an honour to have so many distinguished national and international civil society leaders here at my alma mater of the University of Melbourne.
The University motto Postera Crescam Laude calls on those passing through these precincts to act so that they grow in the esteem of future generations.
If governments and civil society continue to work together in strong and respectful partnerships, we can, as we have done with the eradication of disease, take on the most seemingly intractable problems.
Finding what Tim Costello calls ‘workable answers’: To benefit both present and future generations – and to grow in their esteem.
I wish you well.