Subsidiarity – empowering people to take responsibility.

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Peter Whiting.

Not even sure what ‘subsidiarity’ is, let alone whether it is relevant to today’s problems? No need to feel inadequate. It is an awkward word, and its meaning can be elusive. It emerged in Catholic Social Teaching in 1931 in Pius XI’s social encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno. It was asserted as a fundamental principle of social philosophy that ‘one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise’. 

Its roots lie in the intent to protect the dignity and rights of the individual. More recent usage has seen its meaning embrace the idea that a central authority should only perform those tasks which cannot be performed at a local level.

So why pose the question here and now? We are experiencing around the world a number of unrelated large-scale protest movements which seem broadly to have in common only that they are each demanding increased political freedom and social equality.

  • In Iraq, protestors are demanding an end to the current political system, which they allege has given rise to corruption and economic collapse.
  • In Lebanon, protests have cut across political and religious divides, also demanding an end to government corruption and social inequality.
  • In Hong Kong, protestors have for nearly six months been seeking the resignation of leader Carrie Lam, as well as universal suffrage for the Hong Kong parliament.
  • In Chile, early protests about a transport fare hike have grown into a broad movement against inequality and poor economic management.
  • In Pakistan, a protest movement styled as a ‘Freedom March’ points to the conflict over Kashmir and to poor economic management.

Growing threats to democratic values

The nature of each of these protests highlights that the country leaders in each case are committed to a model of strong centralist government and its associated exercise of power, while those protesting on the streets are seeking empowerment and social equity. There is no doubt that rapid digital communication of information and efficient transport have been enabling factors in the centralisation of government and power.

But these developments are alienating many local groups, who feel ‘left out’ and increasingly marginalised. They feel ‘powerless’, seeking to exercise power by acting in concert as a group.

None of the groups is calling for increased ‘subsidiarity’, but surely that is what is implied by their calls for change. If social justice and accountability are to be the outcomes, then increased exercise of subsidiarity in government is required.

The need for the practice of greater subsidiarity is not restricted to the examples cited here. In this newsletter, we carry two articles relating to the pursuit of an indigenous voice in government.

Eddie Synot laments Ken Wyatt’s proposed “voice to government” marks another failure to hear indigenous voices.

Susan Connelly, in her article Mirrors & Flags, writes of the violence in Papua and West Papua, and the demands of the Papuans for the United Nations to hold a properly supervised referendum on independence.

This newsletter also addresses two aspects of climate change :

Jeremy Smith calls for radical planning and action to address Our Climate Crisis.

Chris Barrie asserts that Climate change poses a ‘direct threat’ to Australia’s national security. It must be a political priority.

In an endeavour to present the true faces of Newstart recipients, Owain Emslie puts before us Five charts on what a Newstart recipient really looks like.

Bruce Duncan implores Mr Morrison, please do not abandon innocent Aussie children in Syria.

‘Subsidiarity’ will probably never catch on as a word. We do, however, hear it echoed in terms like ‘devolvement’, ‘self-determination’, ‘delegation’, or even ‘independence’.  Whichever term we use, it is symptomatic of the increasingly globalised world in which we live that localised ethnic, religious, cultural, socio-economic, or political groups are struggling to have their voices heard.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but if we are to become a cohesive and united world, then our political, economic, and social processes will need to embrace the notion of ‘subsidiarity’.

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