The Age
Oops, I've just used the C word


Tuesday 14 March 2000

The inaccurate, idealised and self-serving use of the word "community" is starting to irritate me.

In newspapers and on talkback radio, every politician, campaigner and disgruntled member of the public is lamenting on behalf of the "community", or "lost community values".

Goodies (the people) and baddies (those who control them) use the word. The "community" is nearly always the victim of heartless governments and bureaucrats, big business, economic rationalism and associated greed - as if the community existed independently of politicians, business people, bureaucrats, bank staff, property developers and greedy people driving Saab convertibles.

"Community" conjures images of small country towns, barn dances, chewing the fat leaning on car bonnets, and fund-raisers to build new toilets for the local sports ground. Use the word "community" and any action - whether a cut to funding for public art programs or a plan to build a block of flats in a nice suburb - that threatens this utopian existence is bound to be seen as reprehensible.

The word is used in another, equally manipulative way, by the baddies. MPs, governments and big companies are seeking "feedback from the community", or "community consultation". They use "community", rather than "public", "electorate" or "residents", because it makes them sound kinder and more sensitive.

"Community" is now applied willy-nilly by people with suburban, citywide, regional, state and national grievances, as if Australians share common values, aspirations and grievances. But we don't.

Joan Kirner is always defending the community against perceived injustices, as if we all shared her outrage. The community, says the group opposed to the new netball stadium in Royal Park, is appalled by this appropriation of public parkland. No, they're not. Thousands of women and men from the northern suburbs who've been playing netball in the grotty stadium for decades reckon it's terrific. A small group of people in the Parkville-North Carlton area thinks it stinks.

Labor pollies and councillors seem to use "community" more than Liberals - it's too soft and cuddly a word for Peter Reith and Peter Costello. Labor likes to think it's more in touch with ordinary people and, of course, communities usually consist only of ordinary, long-suffering people.

But how can we be a community when we're constantly lamenting that we've lost our community values? Our society is selfish and greedy; we raise latchkey children and discard the elderly; we are obsessed with money.

We are told (on this page, on 22February) that young people take ecstasy partly because they're disillusioned with a society that lauds status, power and money at "the expense of community". Marie Curtis, whose husband lost his job with Mirvac, laments in a letter to The Age (on the same day) that her husband is a casualty of greed, and that "we are all a casualty of that greed".

Our hypocrisy about "lost community values" is often amusing. We lament the loss of social services, cuts to public health and university funding, no air-conditioning for primary schools, the closing of child-care centres - but no one wants to pay more tax. We're whingeing about the GST; we don't want to pay capital gains tax, wealth taxes or taxes on that fine rort, family trusts. Greed is always someone else's fault.

Then there are the banks. We empathise with people in the country who now have to drive miles to bank. But haven't thousands of Australians bought bank shares? How many are jumping up and down at annual general meetings saying the rot has to stop; reopen the branches, or at least hire more staff to give customers better service?

Have we really lost so-called community values? You don't have to scratch far below the surface to find civic values at work among volunteers, professionals, nurses who do more than they are paid for, men who mentor disadvantaged kids, women who run preschool centres and school canteens, people who run amateur sports competitions; people who spend hours on weekends revegetating scruffy suburban parks or recording their suburb's history; teenagers collecting money for charities.

We can't complain that we don't have any community values when most of us say we don't have time to contribute to life beyond our family and friends. We don't all have to run scouts, join Rotary or run anti-cancer fund-raisers. We can contribute in small ways. We can smile at the lady who walks her cocker spaniel every morning. We can mow our neighbor's nature strip. Small acts of kindness can make a community, too.

Oops. I've succumbed.

Original article