Australia’s Integrity Crisis

Possum Hodgkin, Canberra and Regional Quakers

Australia is at a critical risk of losing its integrity. Trust in institutions is low, and we struggle to agree on basic truths of reality.  Democracy can not function in a landscape of mistrust, corruption and lies. Perhaps we can survive for a time without democracy, but if left to fester this trend will rot the underlying fabric of society.  All the fundamental functions of society are built on a common truth.  The rule of law which keeps our peace, the welfare and education which underpins technology, and the basic respect of other human life which keeps us from barbarism

We drive on a common road together. We must be able to trust the cars coming towards us will keep their lane. We must believe that the road signs read true.

 This reliance on common ground has always been true, but it is thrown into urgent sharp relief by the need for ethics for our post-human AI and cyborg offspring to govern the future of humanity. We cannot hope they will keep true to our values, if we can’t even state what our values are.  The AI alignment problem requires our own alignment to solve.

To stand any chance of stemming the tide of mistrust, we be clear on the cause.

 The story of our nation’s integrity problem begins with our arrival in this land.  We did horrible, unethical things, and we lied about them.  The written accounts of the first explorers tell of a thriving first nations society with agriculture, multi-story houses, clothing and continent-spanning trade networks. Their highly evolved steady state society had survived longer than any other in the history of humanity; the magnitude and criticality of this achievement is only now being appreciated.   These accounts didn’t make it back to England; they were edited out of letters by the colonial governors, and the lie at the heart of Australia was born.

 Terra nullius allowed a genocide, and we have still not come to terms with it. Hundreds of years later there are still many who deny it happened at all. Perhaps because accepting such a horrible truth would come at too great of a cost to their worldview, personal wealth and self-image. Whatever the reason, it birthed a culture where the most horrible acts could be justified, and history rewritten by the victor.

Terra nullius?

Most of us were not here then, and perhaps we would not have gone along with the lie. Australia’s migrant population weren’t given a choice in it; we were not told on arrival.  We were presented with a very different picture, of a lucky country, a strangely empty paradise waiting for us, if we would merely accept the validity of the existing power structure.

 That power structure did not fully change at federation.  In many cases the existing colonial governors transitioned seamlessly into identical positions in the new country.  In the most extreme examples, the very people who had hunted, killed and raped indigenous peoples were elevated to become aboriginal protectors and members of parliament. Our electorates are named after some of them, and their descendants still represent the descendants of those they oppressed. This is true across all aspects of society, not just government. Australia still has billionaires descended from slave owners. 

 Initially newcomers were carefully managed, to ensure they had a shared cultural heritage and would support the structures of power.  However, after World War II it became clear this dominance may be usurped from abroad, so it was decided Australia needed to get big to survive the next war. One hundred million Australians would be needed by 2100, a true global military power to help enforce western hegemony.  To reach this goal we would need to double our population every 50 years.  This is when the great migration began, and 70 years later Australia’s high migration rates are still on target for our fateful date with an imagined war.

  All this migration posed a number of problems, chief of all how to ensure they supported the rich pay for all the infrastructure to support that many humans. The answer was to import rich people and make them pay for themselves.  The three main ways to get into Australia was to either have a lot of money, come from a rich country or have a job which will earn a lot of money.  This is why such a small portion of our migrants are the refugees who most need the support of a rich country; they don’t make it in because they can’t pay for themselves.

How do you onboard all these people to the status quo? This was partially solved by the rich migrants not wanting to rock the boat, but the other approach has been control of our education system and media.  The lie was doubled down on, the truth was suppressed and excised from public discourse. Media has now been consolidated to the point that Australians mostly get their news from just two corporations, or from the government itself.

 Once you have established these techniques for controlling the narrative, it’s hard to keep them constrained to just one lie. We are now awash with deceptive but profitable words from industries like military, fossil fuel and finance. This is endemic through all aspects of our lives, not just in the media. Lies, cronyism and glorification of violence have been normalised throughout all the cultural pillars of Australia. We do see institutions make claims of higher virtues, but they will all ring hollow so long as the rotten core remains.

   Is it any wonder then that when the pandemic came, so many doubted even the underlying basics of science? We are so used to being lied to, that we struggle to see the truth. This too is deliberate, with humanities underfunded and critical thinking discouraged. This is how we find ourselves in the moral wasteland of the present. The longer we bury our heads in the sands, the less we can see a way out of the desert. 

 We see this issue manifesting as corruption in government and war crimes in our military. In both cases the highest values are publicly stated, while the lowest are enforced. However, it spreads much further, and also infests in every major institution. Through cronyism, state capture, corporate deception and organised crime, we see a country unable to shake itself free from leeches while it clings to a snake.

  This disease of the soul isn’t just happening on a large scale; we see division among families and communities, inability to prioritise welfare and healthcare, people’s basic human rights undermined in fights over race, gender and body parts.  On all fronts, personal and collective, a lack of common ethics is undermining the success of society.

 The Answer

 The answer to all of these big problems is actually very small, it’s within us. It begins by finding truths that we can all agree on.  These common truths can be our rock, our new deal. On this rock we can recraft a society capable of achieving the higher ideals we strive for.

 We think Quakers can help here. We do not hold the whole truth, but we do have processes which can build consensus. Our testimonies were not handed down by prophets to be unquestioned.  The things we agree on, are simple statements of universal truths derived from quiet discernment by humans in peaceful discussion. 

  For centuries we have turned to the small voice of truth inside, seen the light of good within others, and patiently worked through complexities to find common ground. The things we have found seem like common sense, and there are similar testimonies among other religions and humanists. We believe Australia needs to go through this process, to find our truths and then stick to them.  That, after all, is integrity.

 All Australians agree we need integrity, but that can’t happen without shared truth. To achieve this, we are inviting you to join us in discussion. We would like to work with you to build the Australian ethical consensus, and from there rebuild trust in society.  


The way ahead?

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