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The bastard subsidiarity of bushfire responses



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.

Elizabeth Blakeman embraces her husband Brian amongst the bushfire ravaged forest on their property on 12 January 2020 in Wairewa, Vic. (Photo by Chris Hopkins/Getty Images)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, the theme of the forthcoming Catholic Social Services Conference, 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.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street. He will co-present a workshop on eco-justice during the Catholic Social Services Conference 'Serving Communities with Courage and Compassion' with Dr Bronwyn Lay, Ecological Justice Coordinator for Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Elizabeth Blakeman embraces her husband Brian amongst the bushfire ravaged forest on their property on 12 January 2020 in Wairewa, Vic. (Photo by Chris Hopkins/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, bushfires



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Existing comments

Anglicare and Catholic Care in response to other catastrophes such as the Indonesian tsunami are reported to have given over 90% of donated dollars directly to the victims with less than 10% being used to pay for the necessary increase in administrative costs. In the Indonesian catastrophe, Red Cross and another well known Christian charity, highly regarded over the last century, found the need to withhold almost half the donated monies to cover increased administrative costs. It seems some are up to the same stunts with the current bushfire crisis, Red Cross allegedly stockpiling donated funds for future potential bushfires or other catastrophes. No selfless donation of their service networks, rather a hand-rubbing opportunity to increase the bank balance and, who knows, perhaps another executive bonus payment ! Therein lies the real bastardry.

john frawley | 29 January 2020  

Ditto to john frawley's remarks; each organization will have CEOs, accountants and administrative persons who may have good intentions but surprisingly also feel the need their time is professional, therefore paid. Centrelink is ideally the agency to handle relief funds distribution; they have regional branches and agents nationwide with already mobilized resources and personnel; the enrollment process is established and secure, and we know that misdirected funds can be recovered. The community and charity people on the ground do a wonderful job but require to work outside their field of expertise to allocate relief funds. It is an emotional time that people have lost everything; no home, few possessions but in many respects they're no worse off than the homeless in our community who often are treated with disdain. Australians want to see bang for their tax dollars and charitable donations. I'd have to suggest the organizations administration executives should receive no more weekly wage compensation than the needy recipients...but it won't happen.

Ray | 29 January 2020  

Mateship - as shown so bravely and selflessly at Gallipoli, the Somme, Tobruk and on the Kokoda Trail - is a secular rendition of that loving, caring, all embracing Compassion which should underlie and cement our society. Does it? Aye, there's the rub. Some politicians, like Gladys Berejiklian have, whatever their faults and shortcomings, been right up there with the likes of Shane Fitzsimmons during the bushfire crisis. Other politicians, like Scott Morrison, and, even more, David Elliott, have been somewhat underwhelming.

Edward Fido | 29 January 2020  

“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.” Governments following communist/socialist orthodoxy are not easy touches either. While claiming solidarity as the foundation of their legitimacy to rule, they too ration resources, expect self-responsibility and use stringency to encourage it, using the same argument as the neoliberals that the people’s resources must not be squandered. Why? Because scarcity of resources is a universal human burden. The challenge to solidarity or subsidiarity is to effectuate autonomy in conditions of scarcity. Wherever possible, systems should exist whereby the effect of a “No” (eg., denial of higher welfare payments) is adjusted by several sources of an “Instead….” To the beggar (Acts 3) Peter in solidarity attaches an ‘instead’ which gives the man not a temporary salve of cash but a permanent autonomy which, incidentally, is not healed legs which might only lead to employment as a day labourer in somebody’s vineyard but hope and equanimity from prudent ways of seeing things. The individual is ultimately responsible for how he adjusts to reality.

roy chen yee | 30 January 2020  

Andrew, You are quite correct in your analysis. I have seen these situations frequently in my 70+years, but these disasters seem more frequent these days. With the Neoliberal attitudes of governments of both colors, charities are increasingly taking up the slack of helping those in need. Indeed we are approaching the attitudes that Charles Dickens wrote so much about two centuries ago. As Governments do not help meet day to day expenses of the charities, sadly some funds have to go to meet expenses . What really irritates me is the use of expensive television time to air slick and often emotionally charged ads aimed at an emotional guilt ridden response from the viewer to donate to the charities, often overseas based. Few are remotely accountable for the money raised. I agree with Ray, Centrelink is ideally based to carry out this work, but I would not be holding my breath!

Gavin O'Brien | 30 January 2020  

Having worked for many years in disaster relief I am very aware that people want to see their funds committed to direct aid 'goods'. Unfortunately there is also a cost in the logistic support such as quality control (sometimes donated goods are not suitable for purpose), transport, security etc. needed to get the aid to victims and this cost has to be met by agencies from the funds donated - it doesn't fall from on high! Governments (i.e. politicians) are great at making grandiose statements about the aid they are going to provide but very reluctant to say how long it will take to actually provide that aid and over what length of time. They also have to provide logistic support and this can take time in bureaucratic organisations that have to account to auditors for every dollar. Aid is rarely as simple as it appears to the outsider.

Joe | 30 January 2020  

Thank you Andrew for this insightful commentary on what afflicts Australia today - the lack of compassion, courage, integrity and policies as displayed by our current federal government.

john Nicholson | 30 January 2020  

I agree the proper place for distribution of aid should be through a government agency. But as we see, neither commonwealth nor state governments who handle payments (think Centrelink, ATO, Vet Affairs, child welfare, National Disability Insurance Scheme) are equipped to ensure the fairness, efficiency, confidentiality or flexibility needed to reach those eligible. I am not sure if they ever were as I don't think government was ever set up to care. On the other hand, those agencies whose mission was to serve their fellow humans in need had the huge advantage of knowing - and often, caring about - their communities. I worked exclusively in the NGO sector for this reason. That is, until 20yrs or so ago, when NGOs corporatized. To my mind, more than the bastardisation, it was the death knell of help. Finding help is the responsibility of the individual who must wade through glossy advertising and emotionally laden photos to traverse a barren and blaming landscape of 100 forms. And if they don't accidentally trip over someone willing and skilled, it quickly becomes the individual's fault for having a need. Nifty trick. Also very nasty. I am not a fan.

Catarina Neve | 30 January 2020  

‘Incoherent’ is one word. ‘Chaotic’ is another. In his criticism of the efficiency of the three organisations trusted by the Australian people to channel our monetary aid, the Member for Bega seemed to be responding to the desperation of the victims in his electorate. Yet he effectively undermined the trust of our wider society, trust well-earned over many years in the experience and logistical skill of the Red Cross, Vinnies and Salvos. So many people are now saying they won’t donate. Spreading the absolutely unfounded rumour that bean- counters were reserving donated funds for future disasters, or for administrative costs here and now, was not only untrue but massively counter-productive. The neo-liberal preference for communal action, rather than government assistance, was not served well by his uninformed outburst. And - Centrelink does emergency relief really well too! Do we prefer that the Red Cross etc just put a big bag of money in the middle of a town square and invite victims to help themselves? These same victims will have major problems in six months - will there be any help left, if relief organisations aren’t permitted to do forward planning now?

Joan Seymour | 30 January 2020  

Thankyou , Andrew Hamilton. That attack on the NGOs was a surprising and really disappointing aspect of the bushfire crisis. I have now also learned about subsidiarity. I am pleased to see that attack has been named in and I am grateful. Kindness A-MH

Anne-Marie Holley | 01 February 2020  

Having made donations to several of the charities for the bushfire relief, and having assisted with collecting funds for one charity, I have to take issue with the suggestion made by Ray and reiterated by some others that Centrelink should distribute the donated funds. Personally, I would not donate to any charity whose funds were to be taken over by Centrelink (or other government agency) for distribution. The larger charities do have the expertise to manage the donated funds, with people on the ground at local and community level to know what is needed and when. Immediate distribution is not necessarily the most sensible way to act; rather, careful consideration of both short term and longer term needs of the people to be helped is needed. The charities are accountable and subject to audit under the various state and territory incorporated associations acts so donors can be reasonably assured that their donated dollars will be used as wisely as possible. (Apologies that my comment is made so long after the article went to print, but I have had my feet more on the ground regarding the donations side of things).

Tessa Ward | 03 March 2020  

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