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It's 'social justice' time

By Don Aitkin - posted Tuesday, 2 July 2013


Wayne Swan, former Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer, said that he had been guided in politics through his belief in social justice, as I wrote yesterday, and his remark sent me off to rethink what I knew about that slippery term. It's a no-brainer, social justice, because nobody could be in favour of social injustice. It's a term much beloved of politicians, mostly from the Left. But what does it mean, really?

If you look it up you will get a variety of possible definitions, most of them pretty vague. Here's one from the Australian Human Rights Commission: 'Social justice is about making sure that every Australian – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – has choices about how they live and the means to make those choices'.

The Salvation Army sees social justice as needed 'when society itself is the "bad guy". What happens to justice when our spending habits keep people enslaved?' At once I get worried. Aren't our spending habits our own responsibility? The Salvos say further that 'social justice … [is] the pursuit of justice for someone else's sake'. I can see this is germane to what the Salvos actually do, but it seems foggy to me.

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The Catholic Bishops have issued several statements about social justice, and the most recent one seems to me to wander around the subject. The closest I could get gave me this: 'Our society cannot ignore the fundamental needs of families or fail to respond adequately to those families in crisis.' Again, something seems missing here. What are the responsibilities of families, or at least the heads of them? Are the Bishops looking toward charity here, or state intervention? Any why, in either case?

The best account of the term I could quickly find comes from the National Pro Bono Resource Centre, in its Occasional Paper #1. This useful essay shows how many different strands there are in the concept but, '[to] put it simply, the concept of social justice involves finding the optimum balance between our joint responsibilities as a society and our responsibilities as individuals to contribute to a just society. Many different ideas exist about where that optimum balance lies.' They do indeed.

Let's hang on to that crisp statement of the problem. The desired outcome was well put by Mick Dodson twenty years ago, and it goes like this: 'Social justice is what faces you in the morning. It is awakening in a house with an adequate water supply, cooking facilities and sanitation. It is the ability to nourish your children and send them to a school where their education not only equips them for employment, but reinforces their knowledge and understanding of their cultural inheritance. It is the prospect of genuine employment and good health: a life of choices and opportunity, free from discrimination.'

To me Mick Dodson's vision is what things might be like in a good society, but how should we arrive at it? All sorts of state intervention programs aim to produce outcomes like this, but it is immediately obvious that a great deal depends on what the individual or family does with what they actually have.

Welfare accommodation is often, at least in my experience, poorly looked after. A family may have a home and all the items that Mick Dodson mentioned, but when a break-up occurs, one of their number may be homeless. Charity demands that we help, but to what end? Shouldn't we be fixing the initial breakup? You don't think so? Where does intervention end, and individual responsibility begin? None of this is easy stuff, and Australia deals with these 'social justice' problems with a mixture of charity, voluntary effort and state intervention.

As I've written in the past, what worries me about all this is its open-ended nature. It is as though those receiving help are powerless to do anything, victims of structural forces over which they have no control, 'victims'. Yet we can all point to people who triumphed over such obstacles and went on the build lives of productivity and altruism themselves. Why them, and not others? Can we develop policies to have many more victors and fewer victims?

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One mechanism the state uses is the search to produce 'jobs' for everyone, and built into this is the assumption that jobs lead to income and income leads to housing, food, clothes and the rest of it. But income can lead to booze, the pokies and drugs, too. If that is the choice people make, should we go on helping them? Well, we don't want beggars, as in the USA, do we? (Actually, there are beggars in Australia, too, but we don't like to talk about them.) Where does social justice stop? And what do we do with social justice's failures?

We've been doing this for quite a long time, now, and we should have some answers. In my book What Was It All For? (see above, on the right-hand side) I have a chapter called 'From We to Me?', that argues that the highly individualistic society we now have is not a good environment for social justice concepts, because each is out for himself or herself. Australia has a poorer sense of 'us', of community, than it once had.

When I hear politicians emoting about 'social justice' what generally emerges are bandaid remedies couched in soothing language. I don't have instant remedies, either, but I'm no longer persuaded that 'social justice' means much unless real remedies are being proposed.

The fact that Australia is three times richer than it used to be doesn't mean that we don't have poor, even if today's poor aren't as poor as those fifty or a hundred years ago. But it does tell us that not everyone can handle almost any level of income in a sensible way. That is the core problem. Do you have any solution?

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, published in 2015, is Turning Point, the second novel in The Hogarth Trilogy.

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