Compassion – A Radical Response?
6 December 2018 at 7:50 am
Community Council for Australia CEO David Crosbie explains why he would like to see a more compassionate Australia in 2019.
At a forum this week I was asked to reflect on what I would most like to see more of in Australia in 2019. I think I was meant to answer something like “more funding and support for charities” – in which case I probably disappointed the audience.
My answer was that if I could have anything, I would like to see a more compassionate Australia in 2019.
Compassion can mean different things to different people.
Many see compassion as the heart of human fulfilment: “Only the development of compassion and understanding for others can bring us the tranquillity and happiness we all seek.” – Dalai Lama XIV.
For me, compassion sits alongside empathy, fairness and justice. It is about recognising ourselves in others, about our fundamental humanity, the need to belong, to be valued, to be loved.
Most charities seek to build compassion.
The arts and cultural activities in all their expression play a special role in allowing us to have insight into experiences outside our own, to feel some of what others might feel, to recognise what it might be like to walk in another’s shoes, to find something in common, and in supreme moments, to touch a shared humanity beyond our imagining.
Education is about compassion, understanding, recognition through comparison. And so is health care, aged care, housing, employment, overseas aid, animal welfare, etc, etc. The act of giving and supporting others is an expression of compassion. There are so many ways in which the core work of charities is grounded in compassion.
But if I am asked why I think Australia needs more compassion, I do not point to the arts or to education or to levels of giving. My compassion reference point is incarceration rates.
The latest findings from the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicate incarceration rates are continuing to rise in Australia. The number of prisoners in Australia rose by 6 per cent in 2017 from 38,845 prisoners in June 2016 to 41,202 in June 2017. The rate of imprisonment grew by 4 per cent. Our rate of incarceration is higher than any country in Western Europe, more than double Scandinavian countries, and much higher than comparable countries such as Canada.
Analysis of Australian prisoner characteristics reveal that:
- the medium time in remand awaiting trial and or sentence continues to increase with the average time rising to 3.3 months;
- the incarceration rate of adult Indigenous people is now 2,434 per 100,000, which is more than 11 times the imprisonment rate of non-Indigenous Australians;
- less than 20 per cent of adult prisoners have achieved year 12 education;
- one in three adult prisoners have a disability or long-term chronic health condition.
Prison is often the last resort for drug users, those in extreme poverty, the homeless, those who cannot participate in community. Indigenous people; those with poor literacy; those from lower socio-economic families; people with a disability, people with mental health issues; are all grossly overrepresented in the Australian prison population. Our prisons are not full of violent offenders who pose a risk to society. In fact, less than 25 per cent of the prison population are in custody because of acts of violence against others.
Our rising incarceration rates are a testimony to our failure, our lack of compassion, our inability to find value in our humanity.
Charities can and do reduce incarceration rates; sometimes directly through interventions in prisons and with prisoners after they are released; sometimes through giving people a chance to learn, to gain skills, to get a job, a home, proper treatment for their illness, some support in dealing with their personal issues, their family, their legal issues or their finances; sometimes it is about changing the trajectory of someone’s life through encouragement and support, or reducing their isolation.
Last week, Murray Mandryk a reporter with a small Ontario newspaper wrote: “There was a time in our country when we did a better job of looking out for one another. Canadians even elevated that value above their politics. …Partisanship may be stripping us of these core values, forged out of the realities of living in a gigantic, sparse, cold land that largely produced raw materials – that delicate balance of collectivism and entrepreneurialism.”
There was a time in Australia when passing the hat around did not involve judgement about who was deserving and who was not. Hyper-partisan politics exacerbated by truth decay is clearly eroding our trust in each other, our capacity to empathise, to understand and accept others. We are becoming more tribal, for and against. This is not what we want, or what we asked for.
The most recent research finds that Australians dislike conflict driven politics and are more interested in seeing better health and education than having a few dollars extra in their own pockets. The same research finds trust in politicians is at all time low, even though the research was conducted in July before the leadership spill.
Charities remain one of five groups that more than 50 per cent of Australians trust. Our challenge is to extend that trust.
Now more than ever charities need to emphasise the values we enact and the value we create. We need to promote compassion, describe how we build it and why it matters.
Compassion is at the heart of our engagement with our communities, the foundation of relationships that drive our capacity to achieve change.
In contemporary Australia, compassion is becoming a radical response, and that may be just what is needed to create the kind of Australia we want to live in.
About the author: David Crosbie is CEO of the Community Council for Australia. He has spent more than 20 years as CEO of significant charities including five years in his current role, four years as CEO of the Mental Health Council of Australia, seven years as CEO of the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia, and seven years as CEO of Odyssey House Victoria.
David Crosbie writes exclusively for Pro Bono News on a fortnightly basis, covering issues of importance to the broader not-for-profit sector.