Common good key to reversing trust deficit

Posted 4 December 2018 10:06am

Joe Zabar, Deputy CEO, Catholic Social Services Australia
As published in Eureka Street 27 November 2018

Many Australians are concerned with the current state of our political, economic and social institutions and the leadership of them. Australians are outraged by the behaviour of our political leaders securing their hold on power and position, and by the behaviour of our economic and social institutions highlighted by recent royal commissions.While for some the rage burns, for the rest the response is a collective shrug of the shoulders and a question of resignation: 'What can I do about it?'

Whenever institutional interests are put ahead of the legitimate concerns of others, including the poor and marginalised, there develops a trust deficit. This deficit is gripping institutions here and overseas. Its impact is deep and destructive.

The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, a global survey across 28 countries, shows that trust in each of Australia's four key institutions — government, business in general, the media and not-for-profits — has fallen. Since 2017, trust in government has fallen from 37 per cent to 35 per cent, business from 48 per cent to 45 per cent, media from 32 per cent to 31 per cent and NGOs from 52 per cent to 48 per cent. These were not great numbers to begin with, but the slide, which is going all in one direction, should give cause for alarm.

As our trust in institutions declines, so too does our commitment to them. Our relationship with the political system and its parties, our economic institutions and even churches has become detached. The salacious reporting of the countless examples of wrongdoing has, for many, extinguished the fire of outrage that would demand change. Instead, these scandals of self-interest have increased antipathy towards the very institutions that we have created to support and be part of our society.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church is a concise yet comprehensive overview of the Catholic Church's social teaching and is self-described as a 'treasure trove of radical wisdom offered to the whole of humanity in the interests of the common good'.

Gaudium et Spes, one of the key documents that emerged from the Second Vatican Council, expresses the common good as the sum of those conditions of social life that allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfilment. The common good holds in tension the fulfilment of an individual's interest and the interests of the whole.

"When there is an authentic commitment to others with selfless sharing of love and good will, especially towards those hurt beyond anything we could imagine, institutions and their leaders can be powerful forces for good."

In 1992, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference published The Common Wealth for the Common Good, which followed the bishops' inquiry into the distribution of wealth in this country. The bishops said: 'Commonly, the greedy grip of consumerism and what we see as our own needs blind us to a wider view of what it takes to make an equitable society where the needs of all are addressed.'

Fast forward to 2018 and the findings of Justice Kenneth Hayne in his interim report of the Financial Services Royal Commission. The Royal Commission has brought to public attention example after example of unconscionable behaviour of Australia's banking and financial services sector. Commissioner Hayne concludes that the reason for these behaviours was greed — the pursuit of short-term profit at the expense of basic standards of honesty.

The excessive pursuit of self-interest, whether it be for the accumulation of wealth or preservation of power or reputation, can lead to actions that set aside our moral code of fairness and justice. The excessive pursuit of self-interest is in many ways key to the current state of affairs that dogs our political, economic, social and charitable institutions. It is a condition that goes beyond our institutions and has embedded itself in the community at large.

Competition for resources, rapid technological change, insecure employment, an uncertain global and domestic economy as well as the transfer of decision-making from the state to an often underprepared public is creating an unease among us that often drives us to look inwards. Self-interest is, in reality, self-preservation. And while fear may partly explain our focus on self-interest, it does not justify it.

There is hope, though, as the recent national apology by the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader to the thousands of survivors of institutional child sex abuse showed. When there is an authentic commitment to others with selfless sharing of love and good will, especially towards those hurt beyond anything we could imagine, institutions and their leaders can be powerful forces for good.

It is that commitment to others that Pope Francis asks of us as we go about our daily lives. It is a call that we open our eyes and our hearts to others, acting in the best interest of our neighbours rather than ourselves.

The common good is fundamental to the functioning of our society. Being attentive to the common good, we need to renew our commitment to sound institutions and to judgements based on more than individual self-interest.

  Joe ZabarJoe Zabar is the Director of Economic Policy for Catholic Social Services Australia and author of An Economy that works for All.

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