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The bastard subsidiarity of bushfire responses

  • 28 January 2020


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