If this is to be the age of personal responsibility, let it be universal

Treasurer Joe Hockey’s declaration of an age of personal responsibility is welcome, as long as the principle applies consistently to all. AAP/Dan Himbrechts

Federal treasurer Joe Hockey has announced that the age of personal responsibility has begun. Personally, I’m glad to hear it.

I’ve often felt a swelling of pride at the achievements of CEOs or sportspeople only to become deflated when I realised their achievements were merely a product of a team effort, and they were not really responsible at all.

Worse still, there is often a distinct lack of personal responsibility when things go wrong. For instance, our hugely profitable financial institutions seem not to think they owe us anything for bailing them out.

This seems to be the problem with the Hockey thesis; it has the wrong targets in its sights. Rather than demand that the ever-increasing numbers of unemployed take responsibility for there being no jobs – a situation about which they can do very little – Hockey should cast the net a bit wider in the search for the irresponsible.

Why exempt some from responsibility?

For instance, where are the laws that would demand that our coal exporters take responsibility for the harms to the climate that their products cause? The coalminers will respond that their products are perfectly legal. But this is scarcely a defence if what we are talking about is personal responsibility, which is different from legal responsibility.

They might also claim that it is not they who burn the coal and so they should not share responsibility. But this seems unlikely as well given that we routinely require that companies not act negligently when selling products they know may end up harming people. Think also of the restrictions we do (and should) place on the nuclear/hazardous waste industries or gun manufacturers and to whom they can sell their products.

Another constituency that ought to be held accountable if Hockey is serious about personal responsibility is farmers. We have been hearing about the need for increased drought aid. I have no objection per se to aiding struggling farmers.

Yet that Australia has frequent and severe droughts surely should not come as a surprise. We live in the driest inhabited continent. We clearly need to face up to the fact that many traditional farming practices should no longer be chosen.

Accepting personal responsibility would also seem to require that farmers take steps to drought-proof their land and businesses before aid is handed over. And if Hockey is really serious about consistently applying principles of personal responsibility, he will ask them to “give something back” as the unemployed will be required to do.

Another key part of the “Age of Responsibility” idea seems to be the thought that if you are capable of supporting yourself, you should. This brings us back to the miners. According to the Mining the Truth report from the Australia Institute, the mining industry receives around A$10 billion a year from the taxpayer in direct and indirect subsidies. Hockey’s new focus on responsibility seems yet to penetrate this set of subsidies.

Responsibility isn’t simple

All this goes to show that not only are the targets of responsibility wrongly identified in this debate, but that responsibility is a more complex idea than politicians suppose.

One of the reasons that we are unlikely to see this kind of consistent application of the principle is that the idea seems to have most resonance when applied to individuals such as the unemployed. But not only is this hard to do on a mass scale, it quickly becomes apparent that there are only arbitrary reasons for not extending the principle to the other kinds of groups discussed above.

It is all very well to invoke personal responsibility as a guiding principle in public policy settings, but the action is in the detail. Even if personal responsibility is as good a thing as is claimed, and it seems doubtful that it is, applying it in a non-arbitrary way seems essential.

Otherwise, there is little to distinguish age of responsibility talk from another crude attempt to blame the unemployed as their numbers start to swell.