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Leaders be fair, or else

Leaders need to be fair and equitable, and they also have to be seen as such. Why? Because lack of fairness stirs up powerful feelings like anger and disgust. When leaders don’t deliver they are reviled by their followers. It’s all downhill from there.

The science backs up my claims. They are demonstrated in a series of experiments with capuchin monkeys, a highly social and cooperative primate species.

Sarah Brosnan from Georgia State University tested how the monkeys responded when they were treated unfairly. Picture this scene during one of the experiments. Two monkeys sit in adjacent enclosures with a clear view of each other and the human experimenter outside. The monkeys know the task – on receipt of a token from the experimenter they go to the corner of their enclosure, pick up a stone and hand it to her. In return the experimenter gives them a reward, a slice of cucumber (acceptable reward) or a grape (more desirable reward).

Things start well. The monkey on the left completes the task, is given cucumber and eats it (tastes okay). She then watches as the monkey on the right does the same task and is given a grape (yum!). It is the turn of the first monkey again. She completes the task and gets more cucumber. This time she refuses to eat it and throws it down. She watches again as the other monkey completes the task and receives another grape. On the third and fourth rounds the first monkey is offered cucumber again. She hurls it back at the experimenter, bangs her fist on the floor and rattles her cage.

I know just how that first monkey feels. How galling to see someone else receive benefits that I am just as entitled to. Situations like this really stir me up. It’s not just about me – I don’t like seeing others treated unfairly, either.

It’s the same for all of us. Like capuchin monkeys and other primates, we humans have a sense of fairness that is deeply ingrained in our psyche. Experiments like these also show that a sense of fairness has an evolutionary basis, a human universal that is not particular to certain cultures or societies.

Fairness for most of us is an important value. But it goes even further. It resonates with us at a deeply emotional level. And it plays out in every sphere of our lives.

Fairness, I would argue, is at the heart of every contemporary conversation about how wealth, opportunity and rewards are shared out. The question ‘Is this fair?’ is always in play. The emotions surrounding it are always strong.

Consider its impact on current news stories. Fairness bubbles to the surface with each new revelation of the Panama Papers. It hovers over discussions about the adequacy of the taxes contributed by global companies. It gnaws away at the national conscience in the disparity between Indigenous social outcomes and those of the rest of Australia. And it pricks feelings of guilt about the declining health of the natural environment that we are leaving for future generations.

Let’s test this idea by reflecting on public reactions to some of those news stories.

  • Some global companies are paying a fraction of the tax, per dollar, that ordinary people lose from their pay packets. Around 800 wealthy Australians minimize tax by parking their money in tax havens. Shock. Fury.
  • Care and compensation for survivors of institutional child sexual abuse is, and always was, totally inadequate. Disgust. Repugnance.
  • When companies like Queensland Nickel go into receivership, ordinary workers are last in line to receive their entitlements. Anxiety. Frustration.
  • Twenty five years after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, incarceration rates have doubled in Western Australia. Frustration. Disbelief.
  • Farmers are displaced by mining companies. Anger. Helplessness.

We should be relieved and grateful that a strong sense of fairness is ingrained in our psyche. It is the foundation for social cohesion, harmony, trust and good will.

But what happens when we feel let down by community leaders? When the gap between the ‘haves’ and those less fortunate gets too wide and they fail to act? Or when we discover that the ‘rules’ favour the rich and powerful more than we ever thought possible?

Strong feelings elicit strong reactions. In that we are no different from the capuchin monkeys.

Like me, do you sense a rising tide of dissatisfaction with how many fundamental issues of fairness and equity are playing out on our national stage? If so, with a federal election near, expect interesting campaigning and some serious surprises at the ballot box.