Civic Duty



‘Everything that deceives may be said to enchant.’

From Plato’s Republic


How wonderful it must be to live in the version of Australia that is professed. What a heaven is Earth, when the perfect nation of Australia is in it! How magisterial, this fair society, of mates and sacrifice, of those who work, who espouse charity and decorum, and certainly not prone to hitting women. Never mind the beer swill, or the toothless maniac, or the protestation of ‘cunt’ at the top of smoke infested lungs. Life couldn’t be better – so long as that deep blue is flowing in the wind, all star adorned, like five points of great and enduring freedom. One could so easily forget to live in the real world, if one lived in Australia.

Thankfully this essay is not about sardonic bitterness. Although the impulse is strong, especially when the Australian polity is the subject of discussion, it is about something quite a bit less acid than that. It’s about civic duty – the tie that binds – and what it means for the people of this country. Australia is uniquely international, but, at the same time, desperately insular. Our expatriates have been known far and wide, our wealth is unparalleled. We are ferociously intelligent, strategically isolated and small. But there is something missing. Australians turn in on themselves like the saddest of all the paupers. For all our trouble, we lack infrastructure, culture, and discourse. There is wealth hoarded like little stashes against winter, in every little corner, and then there is everything else that matters – of which the Australian culture possesses significantly less. What makes us so lazy, impotent and cruel in our civic life, and why do other countries possess this discourse when we do not?


European Settlers with Aborigines, Alexander Schramm, 1850. Everyone looks rather happy in this painting, which is the first of many issues with this saccharine depiction of frontier relations


For an individual to possess a sense of civic duty, a person must be able to step outside of their priorities, and meaningfully conceive of society in a very different way – often far beyond the scope of their own life. This is the conceit at the heart of any complex organized society, which requires that the people in it are, more often than not, able to think beyond their own base instinct, and consider the needs and situations of others. It is an implicit bargain; a constant flux of service and gain, which belongs to all of us, whether we would wish to partake in the bargain or not. Take an obvious example. One walks on the footpath, but drives on the road. That is a very simple delineation of duty, but it remains astonishing in its inventive clarity. The extent to which society has been made possible by the simple rule of law, and the willingness of people to obey that law, is the great achievement of any organized society.

For to drive on the footpath during times of great traffic would speed up one’s journey considerably. So would theft – if one who was stronger should decide to take from someone who was weaker. So would the acquisition of money in the act of business – without paying tax to also support the society which made your effort possible. So would entertaining oneself at the expense of others, by lighting fires or shooting guns; or taking out rage on another person; or exercising influence over another person through the expression of violence – the list is exhaustive. It is the virtue of the bargain that these things either do not happen frequently, or are prosecuted when they do occur.

But the bargain of civilization is a painted on thing – like appliqué, grafted onto a very thin veneer of fabric. It does not take much to break through it, and expose the weakness beneath the surface. When a society loses its sense of civic duty, things fall apart. Things that were once unquestionable become normative, and things that held the whole edifice together are exposed for the simple instruments they really are. For, no matter how complex we think of our society as being, it is held together at its core by some extraordinarily simple principles, and people are far too often willing to take them for granted.


The island of Nauru, one of the Australian offshore detention program’s key facilities. At one point during the Abbot government’s tenure, the island went 18 months without being visited by a journalist


In Australia, bereft of a complex media landscape, it can be difficult to discuss this duty in public. The temptation tends towards platitude, generalization and easy answers. And it is virtually impossible to discuss anything vaguely political without being subjected to analysis drawn up along party lines. The opposite impulse obviously exists in our society, usually in the form of superb smaller publications, and fringe voices. But the simple fact remains – that our national informational apparatus, or the form in which the news reaches the vast majority of people, barely qualifies for the name. Within the primary broadcasts of each commercial network are a series of reports on unpreventable disasters and shockingly promotional information content. Any story of note presented by these channels is likely to be provided by an agency, like AAP, or the expressly edited press conference material of a minister. Commercial radio is somehow even more rapaciously indolent than that. And the general print landscape, object of scorn as it is, I have already discussed in a previous article.

The way in which the public is able to conceive of itself is crucial to any sense of civic duty. If the conditions do not exist for the public to reflect in on its own existence, then citizens cannot be expected to wish to act in a manner conducive to a social whole. Let us take the issue of public transport, which usually breaks down along party lines. In a society where civic duty was constant within the mind of each citizen, it would not be difficult for someone who drives to work each day, and who dearly loves driving, to be able to consider the utility of public transport expansion. As it stands, however, an incumbent party is unlikely to engage in infrastructure spending, on a large scale, with both transport options considered with equanimity.

How is this possible? Melbourne’s population is set to double by 2030. Sydney will grow by half. And yet, when faced with these statistics, is not a polity or a fourth estate who seem particularly eager to run for the hills, screaming for change. Statistics like those, coupled with the cripplingly low density of Australian cities, should have the national and local leadership considering how best to prefabricate emergency refugee accommodation for when city limits are inevitably stretched to the interior desert. Melbourne and Sydney should be rebuilding whole parts of their train network from scratch to account for the massive expansion they will require in the future, and the intense load which population scale will place on the system. And the less said about Sydney’s new light rail project, the better – except to lament the colossal wasted opportunity it represents.


Pacific Electric tramcars awaiting destruction in Los Angeles, 1954. The tram system of the city was destroyed by its investors, in what was later revealed to be a corporate conspiracy


One need not look far for additional examples. They are everywhere in society. Transport infrastructure is simply emblematic, and convenient, which makes it an easy topic of discussion. But it is also a subject whose causes and effects are more obvious. If infrastructure is dilapidated, one cannot travel with great ease. If a city will grow by double, and its infrastructure does not, then it will be unable to move its people. That is very simple. The civic mind is able to conceive of these things with great clarity; the question of expense versus effect is easy for lay citizenry to understand. The fact that these systems are still so compromised, of course, is a worrying genesis point for this argument.

For how does the civic mind cope with something significantly more conceptual, like historical grievances, or climate change? After all, the perceived cause and effect is virtually invisible in both of these cases. If one’s family were involved in perpetrating a massacre, it is suffice to say that the trains may still run on time. If one owns three four-wheel drive cars, one might actually arrive at their destination quite quickly – a destination not made inaccessible by an additional sea level rise in the far future. Conceptually difficult problems like these are still real problems, of course, with physical consequences. For the Indigenous population, it is a miserable gap in living standards compared to the Caucasian population. For the environment, it is a very real alteration of the physical conditions of existence. These problems have causes, and they have effects. But to the civic mind, they are nowhere near close enough to be considered noteworthy.

It is telling that a generational divide exists along these issues. The accretion of technology in the lives of the younger generations, and their distance from a homogeneously Anglo-Saxon society, means that different expectations are more likely to exist about the nature of the country, and its place in the world. Not that it is an inevitable process, of course, but one need only look at the shift in the party divide to notice the difference. The LNP has shifted to the right, Labour to the centre, and the Greens have all but taken up the mantle of the mainstream, international left. The fact that a coalition government, of two major political establishments, is only able to hold a one seat majority is testament to the shifting of the tides in Australian politics. It is a sure sign that the paradigm is changing, and with much greater speed than it did in the 1970’s and 80’s.

But what does it actually mean, and is it a sign that the civic life is becoming stronger, being emboldened by higher quality voices, at greater volume? The passage of gay marriage into law was a positive step in the international direction, but the plebiscite vote was not conducted with either voting or census rigour. And although the recent creation of the Home Affairs office was advised against by almost every single body with a say in the matter, it passed into existence with little rage or consideration. These two recent examples would suggest an equal sort of power given to conservatism as progressivism. But the fact remains – both were handled with terrible regard to process and structure. They would strike me as glaring examples of how the archaic mess of old expectations is a sheen that will not rub off easily. If the Australian media and polity is defined by laziness, one needn’t look much farther than these two examples.


Battle of the Eureka Stockade, JB Henderson, 1854. Still venerated as a monument to civic sensibility, the miners were either freedom fighters or tax evasion specialists, depending on your point of view


The foreign policy of the nation is still predicated on the whims of overseas allies. Our immigration policy is a dual headed snake of open economic exploitation and rigorous, inhuman detention. And each and every economic discussion is broken over the knee of the aphorism king, an ersatz and scurrilous god, who provides for little else but falsehoods at worst, and platitudes at best. The Federal, State and Local government divide is another compound fracture in the Australian political apparatus, which shatters the potential for engagement with the public, and makes national priorities scatter to the wind like so much dust. In so many ways, the ‘Lucky Country’ of Donald Horne’s worst nightmares still exists, right here, beneath our feet. The marketing may have been altered, and the optics blurred, but only to the effect of distorting the image, instead of actually expanding the substance of the nation.

Speaking on civic duty is like discussing the most basic element of any discipline. To those who are well versed, it might seem like condescending trite. To those who are not, it might seem like an insult to suggest that they do not possess such a thing. And for those who are not particularly engaged with any civic thought whatever, the mere existence of such a prospect is unlikely to garner much sympathy. For many Australians, both parties are the same, politicians are always liars, and their vote won’t count anyway. This is the reality of public life for vast numbers of people who couldn’t care less, and are given little incentive to care more. For all their cynicism and detachment, no political intellectual could argue that they’re actually wrong, per se. And defining the terms of the argument, about what should and what should not be considered meaningful within this framework of apathy, is hardly going to shift the prospects of a lifelong conscientious objector.

One might laugh at the suggestion that he or she should ever need to think on the subject of civic duty, so far above it are they, or so deep in their bones do they feel the pangs of  civic obligation. But it would be a dangerous impulse, driven by arrogance and rectitude. For if a society possess such an impulse in an increasingly faltering quantity, then it is up to the active individual to look for a solution. One looks insular and smug at their own peril. If ‘they’ don’t have it, then what you have might not mean a thing.



Martin Quinn








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