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In the last fortnight or so the climate of public life in Australia has changed. After the wintertime of isolation, acquiescence and solidarity, now there are rumours of vernal pastures for individual planting, reaping and profit taking.

Girl helping boy up (Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash)

Visions of profit and plenty for us and trickle down for others abound. Miners want hand-outs; football clubs want license to play their close contact games; big business wants to be able to move its pawns around the chessboard at will; groups hard hit by the virus and economic recession want support; tourist resorts want encouragement for visitors. We all have a vision of a better society and want it implemented for the benefit of people like us, and sometimes of people unlike us.

For comfortable communitarians among us it is tempting to lament the loss of the solidarity displayed in the first response to coronavirus. That would be a mistake.

Solidarity is not a mood to be looked back on with nostalgia, but a commitment to be built and defended. Nor is the noisy spruiking of a myriad of claims for priority and support during the recovery to be lamented. It should be welcomed as a natural response to testing times of great need. It expresses the necessary involvement of the community in the recognition and choice of directions to be taken. 

The challenge in the recovery, as it was during the initial crisis, will be to ensure that as a society we have a reliable compass to guide us as we make our own proposals, as we hear the claims of others, and as we adjudicate their merits and their relative priority. The true north to which the compass is adjusted must be the common good of the whole society, and particularly of people most disadvantaged. The adjustment incorporates the principle that each person is precious because they are human, not because they contribute to the GDP.

It is the responsibility of society as a whole and of each of its citizens to accept these compass settings, and of government to commend them and to ensure that they guide all its own processes of planning, consulting, evaluating and administering. That is what solidarity means.


'Governments must hear both noisy and quiet Australians.'


In the abstract that may seem straightforward. But it presupposes a high level of acceptance at every level of society. It supposes, for example, that we all assume the good faith of people who argue for the importance of their own cause and interests in the recovery. It supposes that we are prepared to listen to those with whom we constitutionally or habitually disagree without dismissing them because of their associations. This openness and impartiality must also be present and displayed in all the committees, decision making body and ministerial decisions. Favoured persons should not receive a favoured hearing nor be brought in to oversee the hearing of others.

If we are confident that the good of all within the community will guide decision making, we shall tolerate, even welcome, noise and debate, but also be resolute in insisting that the strongest and noisiest do not drown out the less articulate. Governments must hear both noisy and quiet Australians.

This demands that persons responsible for adjudicating proposals made for recovery from the virus must hold that the economy is subservient to the common good and does not define it. They must also appreciate the human context out of which proposals are made — will seek to know interiorly, for example, what the life and relationships of Indigenous persons in a remote community are like, when discussing proposals that involve their communities.

This high level of respect is not to be taken for granted. We have been encouraged to see it exemplified in many of the actions taken by national and state leaders, as well as in the care for strangers shown by so many people when responding to COVID-19.

On the other hand, we also recognise that the gross sense of entitlement in the use of public funds embodied in the sports rorts affair remains unrepented of. The reflex search for enemies whose deep dyed evil will turn us and our own narrow self-interest into shining models of purity, too, is also picking up strength. Such things engender disrespect, and distract from the common good.

All this is to say that solidarity in commitment to the common good is not to be taken for granted. It must be believed in, practiced, commended and struggled for. The stakes are clear and the time is right.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Main image: Girl helping boy up (Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, COVID-19, coronavirus, solidarity, communitarianism



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Existing comments

A wry smile developed as I read this article and just would not go away. I'm not sure how many "comfortable communitarians" there are in these here parts but Andy's writing makes all stakeholders think a bit more, wonderfully so. My particular axe to grind is the football administrators who feel their game(s) are so important as to warrant top billing on (some) prime time TV news. Money does indeed talk. We have segments of the population at particular vulnerability and this fact should drive decision-making. The cost to our humanity will be even greater than to the budget bottom-line. My narrow, and large, self-interest can not take another minute. I am self-isolating!

Pam | 07 May 2020  

Don't worry too much about those "Quiet Australians", there are plenty of outspoken advocates who will speak for them... each spokesperson will assume their cause is the righteous path and the silence "qui tacet consentire videtur," (he) who is silent is taken to agree. Belief in a cause doesn't make it right but it does console the believers that it is; should one be commended for choosing and practicing just any path? Perhaps before anyone makes claim to representing a silent majority they should examine their need to adopt them. Sadly, the need will mostly be driven by financial grants made to identified vulnerable groups...there's a good wage in the administration of the needy.

ray | 07 May 2020  

Thank you Andrew for yet another thoughtful article. Hopefully the reflection that we have all been engaged in over these past months will lead to some just outcomes. One that has been exercising my mind is ensuring a fair wage for our sporting professionals. Given their importance as role models for our young people, they should be rewarded appropriately. I think a back-of-the-envelope assessment should come up with something like eighty per cent of the wage of a junior teacher. Whatever is decided, simple relativities would demand that the figure MUST be lower than the wages of a nurse who has been on the front lines in the battle against COVID 19.

Peter Downie | 08 May 2020  

I think your idea of solidarity depends on where you are coming from. This depends on your spirituality, whatever that is. There have always been those in Australia, like Governor Gipps and John Landy, who were examples of what people in public office could be. A genuine spirituality, whether openly declared or not, shapes what you do. Western European Society, of which we are the inheritors of, was deeply shaped by Christianity, even though, at times, that Christianity took a wrong tack, as with the Crusades. You only have to take a trip through parts of France to see how deeply Christianity has shaped its culture. We live in an increasingly multi-faith society so the old bigotry, often linked to racism, has no place. By seeing the transparent good in others, often of a different race and religion, we can see the inherent goodness in God's creation. That does not obviate evil, but it does give you the real sense it is not triumphant. I think, often out of sight, there are shoots of renewal.

Edward Fido | 11 May 2020  

An inspired essay with some equally thought-provoking replies. My beef is with the amount of attention paid to football players: on their inflated salaries how come they are hard-pressed to dip into their savings, or is it only the differentials and one side of the ledger that counts? A bio-engineer friend, currently working on a COVID-19 vaccine, was asked the other day on Channel 7 why he had not yet come up with a 'cure'. Without hesitation he said: 'Because when society decides to fund my research in proportion to its relative importance in saving lives, instead of demoting it to a pittance compared with the salaries paid to professional sportsmen, I'd have a vaccine available to save your life instead of having to scramble to develop one after the event!'

Michael FURTADO | 16 May 2020  

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