When I first heard that a wealthy Australian businessman wants to force us into non-military national service, I thought it sounded absurd.
Venture capitalist and philanthropist Mark Carnegie is copping it from all sides for proposing the idea.
When he thought bubbled it on Tuesday evening at the inaugural Di Gribble Argument as a solution to social disengagement, it was soundly ridiculed for what I considered to be good reasons.
But after giving it some serious thought, I’ve changed my mind.
— Mark Carnegie (@MarkCarnegie1) June 19, 2014
As Mr Carnegie rightly says, the privilege of citizenship is a responsibility as well as a right.
Few citizens are more privileged. Australia ranks amongst the top countries in the developed world on the Better Life Index.
The worst I can personally complain of is an expensive rent bill and a ballooning HECS debt. Thankfully, homes, bachelor degrees and well-paying jobs are not too hard to come by.
I wouldn’t shirk the ballot box or jury service. I try not to break the law. I am a 22-year-old student studying journalism and law in the hope of contributing in some useful way to society.
But by Mr Carnegie’s definition, I am one of the ‘disengaged citizens’ that he laments. I do not go to church, mosque or synagogue. I’m not a member of any political party, nor do I volunteer at the Lions Club.
The young Aussies I know are similarly ‘disengaged’. Yet we are worried about pollution. We believe the gap between rich and poor should be getting narrower, not wider.
We care about our society and the direction in which it is headed. But we don’t always act on it in ways people like Mr Carnegie, or our political leaders, might deem acceptable.
If we really are disengaged (which I doubt), then it’s not for a lack of care, but a lack of inspiration.
I for one would like Australian-ness to mean more than beer and thongs, home ownership and a wretched dissatisfaction with Canberra.
‘Australia for sale,’ is a poor battle cry. ‘Economy, jobs, austerity’ doesn’t quite have the same ring as ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’.
When young Aussies rushed to enlist in our past conflicts, it could be argued that they had a clearer idea of what they were fighting for.
I certainly wouldn’t don an orange jumpsuit or a khaki uniform to mow lawns and feed the homeless in order to prove myself to Mr Carnegie or anyone else. But I would enlist in the worthy cause of civic service to help those in need, and to rally behind a better idea of what it means to be Australian.
Mr Carnegie told ABC radio on Wednesday that his country is “absolutely sheering because the rich and the poor are just getting further and further apart.”
He says we should do everything possible to avoid joining the US in the dustbin of fractured societies. It’s hard not to agree.
And yet, millionaires like Mr Carnegie have a proud tradition of philanthropy. The US topped The World Giving Index last year, while Australia lagged behind in seventh place, behind New Zealand, Ireland and the UK.
Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest is the only Australian billionaire who has publicly taken The Giving Pledge to donate half his wealth to charity.
“I do not understand why there isn’t more of a culture of giving in Australia. I really don’t,” Mr Carnegie said on radio.
It would certainly be inspirational if all of us, young and old, rich and not rich, were more generous with our time and money. Now that would be a better idea of nationhood to aspire to.
If civic service could be this generation’s Gallipoli, I would heed the call.