Chapter 27 - The Government and Ourselves

Posted in The Forgotten People

It is one of the ironies of our democratic system that, while its essence is that Government is self-government, so that what we call the Government is ourselves and nobody else, most of us go on as if the Government were something remote and even hostile.

In a democracy, if we take the average for a term of years and omit the short and perhaps accidental periods, the Government - whatever party colour - is something we have ourselves set up. Its policy is broadly the policy of a majority of us. Its members are drawn from a majority of those whom we, as electors, have freely chosen.

These seem simple truths, but they are commonly forgotten. So is the great truth that there can be no true and effective democracy unless there is an identity of interest and responsibility and duty between the elected and the elector.

Apply these principles to the individual voter. If he truly understands his democratic duty he will live in the constant recollection of his identity with the Government, and his actions will be governed by that fact. He will protect its interests because he will know that they are his. He will pay his taxes without evasion because he will know that the punctual observance of each democrat's duty to the State is the only real source of the State's strength. He will do his work in the munitions factory, at a time like this, not merely for a special war bonus or profit, but also because he will see it as his democratic contribution to a democratic war.

But if our democrat does not understand his duty he will - in common with, unhappily, far too many of us - think of the Government, as a correspondent of mine puts it, as "that remote, somewhat godlike power which is the bestower of benefits, and the scapegoat which bears the sinful burden of everybody's failures."

Here we touch upon one of the great maladies of democracy - a malady which can easily become malignant and destroy us: that rather futile and supine acceptance of the idle and false doctrine that the Government owes us everything while we owe the Government nothing.

Let us be clear about this: that to be a real democrat in a really democratic country is to occupy a position of great dignity and self-respect, for these qualities are the natural and proper attributes of independent man. To be one of those who mouth the catch-cries of democracy and stridently clamour for their so called "right" from the cradle to the grave and after it, but at the same time dodge every civic responsibility, is to occupy a position not of dignity but of contempt.

If I see the State as a grouping of you and me and millions like us, retaining our individuality but seeking strength in unity, I shall not need to be told that to rob the State is to rob myself; that to betray the State is to betray myself; that to become grumbling or cunningly hostile to the State is to start a civil war in my own household.

There are plenty of poor democrats in this country. Let me identify two examples of them. First, there is the tax-evader. Large incomes are today taxed to the very limit. The large-scale war profiteer, if returns are accurately made, is a sheer impossibility; a tax of 18/- in the pound soon sweats if out of him. We are spending a third of our total of individual incomes on war. Yet the orgy of profuse spending and luxurious living is not ended. When we look about us it is hard to believe that there are not many people who evade the law that think it clever. They are not only poor democrats; there is no real room for them in a democratic country. Again, there is the absentee worker - far too many of him; a small fraction of the working population, it is true, but too may when there is a war on and coal or shells lost are a treasonable gift to the enemy.

The war striker; the war absentee; the war profiteer-maker - these are all bad democrats, and all their vociferous lip service to democracy will not amend that fact.

Let me carry this a little further and be quite direct about it. Let us consider one feature of our war set-up which must occasionally give us furiously to think, if it does not actually move us to shame. The Australian who today wants to evade paying a tax, whatever the amount of his income, is a poor Australian, for he is not prepared to fight, even safely, with his money for Australian democracy.

Seventy per cent of the total of all earned incomes in Australia is earned by people with under £8 per week - a seventy per cent which totals around £600,000,000. It is this vast sum which provides the great bulk of the purchasing power in the shops and markets of Australia. Yet it pays only a few millions towards the war.

"Oh," I am told, "you can't ask the wage-earner not only to work long hours but in addition to pay a tax on what he earns in those hours."

Why not, indeed? The man who has enlisted in the armed forces has, in many thousands of cases, reduced his earnings, has taxed himself by a half, by two thirds, by three quarters. His hours are unlimited; he has no overtime pay, no war loading - except the loading of imminent peril of his life. If he can pay those taxes and sustain this sacrifice, how can the munition worker or any other of us civilians hope to avoid at least some fraction of it?

Of course, the answer is that ninety per cent of munition workers, in common with ninety percent of wage-earners throughout Australia, do not want to avoid it. They are good citizens and good democrats. But the ten per cent of poor democrats are vocal. Indeed, I almost come to believe that a good democrat is one with a silent acceptance of his duty, while a bad democrat is one with a noisy insistence upon his rights.

It all comes back to the sense of responsibility - that quiet and lovely virtue which can convert seven millions of individual people into a good and faithful community.

The spirit we need is the spirit of the enlisted men and women in time of war; the spirit of sturdy independence of the great middle class at all times; of the people who save, who are frugal, who take out insurance policies, who yearn for and maintain education, who stand on their own feet and pay above and beyond all this for the assistance of others.

A French king once said, "L'etat, c'est moi." ("The State, it is myself.") In his mouth it was the expression of despotism. In the mouths of a million people it could become the very expression of democracy.

5 June, 1942