The bastard subsidiarity of bushfire responses
30 January 2020 at 8:09 am
The shift from solidarity to suspicion we have seen in light of the bushfire crisis reflects the ambivalence of governments and of many citizens to charitable and community organisations. This is best understood by reflecting on the relationship between solidarity and subsidiarity, writes Andrew Hamilton.
After disasters the media generally focus on the courage of the people affected by them and the compassion of the public response to them. That focus often changes to complaints about how slow, inadequate and flawed are the responses to it. The change of attention is natural as the energy needed to meet the immediate crisis wanes, and the scale of what has been lost and must be rebuilt becomes clear.
This pattern has also characterised the response to the bushfires. The community solidarity with the victims of the fires was extraordinary. It was shown in the organisation and responses to appeals, in the gift of food for stranded people and cattle and in the international messages of sympathy and support.
More recently, however, politicians and media comment have begun to criticise the slowness with which community organisations have passed on the donations to victims of the fires, their retention of a proportion of the donations in order to cover the expenses, and their failure to transfer to the victims of fire funds collected for other purposes.
Community organisations have responded to these criticisms. But the shift from solidarity to suspicion bears reflection. It reflects of course the emotional pressures of moving from crisis to the unrelenting pressures of everyday life in its aftermath. It also expresses, however, the ambivalence of governments and of many citizens to charitable and community organisations. This is best understood by reflecting on the relationship between solidarity and subsidiarity, as described in the Catholic Social Justice Tradition.
Solidarity is the recognition, best shown in times of crisis, that we are all responsible to one another, and especially to the most vulnerable, and that the government is responsible for seeing that this community responsibility is discharged.
Subsidiarity is the insight that our responsibility to one another as fellow human beings is best discharged through groups and the small communities to which we are personally related: through families, schools, churches, workplaces, local councils and friendships. The role of governments is to enable groups to express this solidarity and to take direct responsibility when it cannot be carried at a more local level.
Subsidiarity is important because it helps people who are disadvantaged to find personal care in the service they receive. It also encourages growth in compassion and courage in the community through the personal involvement of so many people with people who are disadvantaged. If all is left to the state the service offered them risks being experienced as impersonal.
“This is a bastard form of subsidiarity, born not out of conviction and solidarity but out of the human cost of government policy.”
Community agencies are usually conceived out of a strong sense of solidarity with people who are disadvantaged. This leads their members to build personal relationships to the people they serve while they address their need for medical care, education and other human needs. In their advocacy they try to persuade the government to accept its own responsibilities.
Governments following neoliberal orthodoxy often deny the claims of solidarity, throwing back on to individuals responsibility for their own fate. Those who are unable to find a place in society must be encouraged by stringency to live responsibly. Because many people suffering from disadvantage are unable to live decently without support, however, they rely on community groups for support. The governments then rely on these groups to discharge the responsibilities they themselves had refused.
This is a bastard form of subsidiarity, born not out of conviction and solidarity but out of the human cost of government policy. The result is that governments need community groups but despise the compassion that solidarity engenders and fear the threat that genuine subsidiarity represents to the legitimacy of its ideology and to its control.
The bushfire crisis brought to a head this ambivalence of governments and exposed the incoherence within it. It underlies the attack by three NSW government ministers on the community groups responding to the fires. The ministers criticised them for doing ineffectually what the government was not doing and for spending money on administration that the government should have provided.
Those who believe that the state should discharge its responsibilities directly and not through community groups are also suspicious of the role of community groups in emergencies, seeing them as letting the state off the hook. In contrast to governments that reject solidarity and only reluctantly accept subsidiarity, they are committed to solidarity but not to subsidiarity.
Rightly understood, governments and intermediary groups are bound together in solidarity, the commitment to work for the good of the whole community, and especially its most disadvantaged members. That cooperation in serving communities calls for compassion and courage both in governments and community groups.
Subsidiarity, which looks to work through the groups closest to the people affected, is a means to this goal. The proper role of government in the case of bushfires is to accept its own responsibility by undertaking commitments that intermediary bodies cannot, and by facilitating and supporting the work of community groups.
Compassion and courage are the marks of a good society. They were shown inspiringly by the firies and people who supported the communities threatened by the fires. Sniping and laying blame seem mean in comparison.
About the author: Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.
This article was first published on Eureka Street.