The author of this book is probably best known as a tireless writer of letters to newspapers on topics ranging from the Constitution to cricket. It is said that if he visited Broome for a holiday he would get involved in any controversy that happened to be current in the local press.
This book is part of The Australian Achievement Project, organised by Mark Cooray under the sponsorship of the late Ben Lexcen who also wrote the Foreword. The other part of the project was a series of public forums during 1988 on the values and institutions which have enabled us to settle an inhospitable continent and create a new nation. These include the family, religious beliefs, private enterprise, hard work, freedom of speech, the legal system and the Constitution.
The message is that we must learn from our achievements and the mistakes of our past so that we can creatively adapt to the challenges of the future. Cooray calls this philosophy 'evolutionary conservatism'. From this perspective he surveys, with some distaste, recent trends in education and family life, the declining role of the churches in social life, the expanding role of central government, and shifting interpretations of the Constitution. He also examines issues such as the rule of law, freedom of speech, human rights and equal opportunity.
He offers a refreshing variation on the usual 'conservative' or 'right-wing' themes. Where Santamaria mixes religious conservatism with dubious economics and the economic rationalists pay no attention to cultural or religious matters, Cooray attempts to do justice to both the spiritual and economic dimensions of our social problems. He has also adopted Donald Horne's dictum that thorough social commentators should find something to say about everything from high culture to the soapies and football finals.
The result of this effort makes interesting reading, especially on the function of competition in economics, education and sport. He notes that the Darwinian paradigm of nature 'red in tooth and claw' is misleading even in biology. For example groups of lions do not compete by fighting each other, but by matching their skill and efficiency (their productivity) in hunting. In the economic domain it makes no sense to think of buyers and sellers being essentially in competition because both parties to a transaction may feel well pleased with the outcome. In other words, the zero sum (winner take all) aspect of competition in sport and war is absent in the marketplace.
He does not find competition in education particularly objectionable but at the same time he does not consider that it is essential for good results. He notes that the unhealthy form of competition can occur when 'coming top' is excessively valued for its own sake, or where material gains follow from coming top (i.e. entry to a Medical faculty at university). Under these circumstances 'he mentality of the race course or the football field does intrude into education' in place of the healthy type of striving for learning for its own sake.
He reveals that the much-quoted remark by the legendary American football coach Vince Lombardi 'Winning is not everything, it is the only thing' really refers to the game that the player conducts with him or herself. A whole-hearted effort counts as a win, regardless of the outcome of the game. He also notes the corrosive effect on civility and good manners of the outbursts and tantrums by leading tennis players (and even cricketers in these degenerate times).
On the other side of the ledger it appears that things are looking up in rugby league, where 'Not long ago many of the forwards were professionally employed on week days as pugilists and standover men'. Apparently quiche-eating has become endemic among league administrators and the role of thuggery has practically vanished from the game under the influence of 'trial by video' and massive suspensions for offenders.
The targets of Cooray's criticism, the radical reformers who are totally disenchanted with traditional values, cannot be expected to concede many of his theses. However people who are weary of cant and slogans from both sides of the political fence will find much to interest them in this book.