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Closing The Gap – Ethical Principles to Guide Policy

by Matthew Beard
16 February 2016
LAW, JUSTICE AND HUMAN RIGHTS
The Government’s Closing the Gap report has sparked new debates over Indigenous Affairs policy. But which ethical principles should guide our approaches here? Matthew Beard discusses social justice.

This piece was originally published by The Big Smoke.

Yesterday Malcolm Turnbull released the 2016 ‘Closing the Gap’ report on reducing a range of disadvantages for Indigenous Australians. Although only two of the seven targets are ‘on track’, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and some community leaders suggest there is reason to be optimistic. In response to the report, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten promised a referendum on Constitutional Recognition in his first year in office – if elected.

The general response from a range of Indigenous commentators and leaders and politicians alike was overwhelmingly to call for an empowerment-based policy model. In his speech, Turnbull repeatedly referenced the expression, "Do things with us, not to us".
Solidarity is a check on self-interest and forces us to recognise our responsibility for other people.

This sentiment came to Turnbull from Dr Chris Sarra, Chairman and founder of the Stronger Smarter Institute. Sarra had three pieces of advice for the Prime Minister:
  1. Acknowledge and embrace and celebrate the humanity of Indigenous Australians
  2. Bring policy approaches that nurture hope and optimism rather than entrench despair
  3. Do things with us, not to us.

Whether he was aware of it or not, Sarra invoked two of the guiding principles of social justice – both of which should be kept close in the minds of policy makers going forward: solidarity and subsidiarity.

 
Solidarity – once the name of a Polish social movement – is the idea that each person has a deep and abiding ethical connection to every other human being. Solidarity is a check on self-interest and forces us to recognise our responsibility for other people. When Sarra asks Australia to celebrate the humanity of Indigenous Australians and bring policy approaches that nurture hope, he is calling for a form of solidarity.

But solidarity needs to be guided by another principle or it threatens to become a form of benevolent social paternalism that undermines the dignity people receive when they can act autonomously. Unchecked solidarity can encourage us to do things for others, not with them.

This is where the principle of subsidiarity comes in. This principle suggests we solve social problems at the most local level possible. For example, an issue within a family shouldn’t be resolved by the state unless the family is proven unable to fix the problem.
Social justice isn’t only about righting past wrongs – it’s about providing the opportunity for the privileged and the vulnerable to encounter one another as individuals rather than bureaucratic abstractions.

Subsidiarity is partly encapsulated in the mantra “do things with us, not to us”. Essentially, it tells us Indigenous Affairs policy cannot be a heavy-handed intervention – it needs to be as light a touch as is possible in order to empower.

But the principle of subsidiarity doesn’t only ask us to solve problems at the most intimate possible level because it’s more effective. It does so because social justice isn’t only about righting past wrongs – it’s about providing the opportunity for the privileged and the vulnerable to encounter one another as individuals rather than bureaucratic abstractions. Doing things at a local level forces those in a position of (sometimes unjust) advantage to personally witness the consequences of social injustice. It makes matters personal.

Being guided by these principles won’t yield any specific policy measures – that’s a matter for empirical study, consultancy and prudent political judgement. However, it will ensure future policy decisions avoid either unchecked paternalism or ineffective, distant spending. Subsidiarity demands policy solutions facilitate direct encounters between the people the policy is ‘for’ and the people doing it ‘with’ them. Solidarity requires us to stop thinking in those binaries altogether.

Dr Matthew Beard is a moral philosopher at The Ethics Centre. Follow us on Twitter @ethics_centre. Image: flickr.

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