Approx Reading Time-10Dr Matthew Beard explains the empowering social justice principles behind Malcolm Turnbull’s Closing the Gap announcement.


This week, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull released his Closing the Gap report, which is set to reduce a range of disadvantages that currently affect Indigenous Australians. Even though only two of the seven targets are “on track,” the Prime Minister and some community leaders have suggested there is now reason to be optimistic. In response to the report, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten promised a referendum on constitutional recognition in his first year in office – if he is elected.

The general response from Indigenous leaders and politicians alike was an overwhelming push toward an empowerment-based policy model. In his speech, Turnbull repeatedly referenced the expression “Do things with us, not to us.”

This sentiment came to Turnbull from Dr Chris Sarra, chairman and founder of the Stronger Smarter Institute. Sarra had three pieces of advice for the Prime Minister:

  1. Acknowledge, embrace and celebrate the humanity of Indigenous Australians.
  2. Bring policy approaches that nurture hope and optimism rather than entrench despair.
  3. Do things with us, not to us.

Sarra invoked two of the guiding principles of social justice, both of which should be at the forefront of the minds of policymakers going forward: solidarity and subsidiarity.

Solidarity – once the name of a Polish social movement – is the idea that each person has a deep and abiding ethical connection to every other human being. Solidarity is a check on self-interest and forces us to recognise our responsibility towards other people. When Sarra asks Australia to celebrate the humanity of Indigenous Australians and bring policy approaches that nurture hope, he is calling for a form of solidarity.

Having said that, solidarity needs to be guided by another principle, otherwise, it threatens to become a form of benevolent social paternalism that undermines the dignity people receive when they can act autonomously.

Unchecked, solidarity can encourage us to do things for others, not with them.

This is where the principle of subsidiarity comes in. This principle suggests we solve social problems at the most local level possible. For example, an issue within a family shouldn’t be resolved by the state unless the family is proven unable to fix the problem.

Subsidiarity is partly encapsulated in the mantra “do things with us, not to us.” Essentially, it tells us Indigenous Affairs policy cannot be a heavy-handed intervention – it needs to be as light a touch as possible in order to empower.

The principle of subsidiarity doesn’t only ask us to solve problems at the most intimate possible level because it’s more effective. It does so because social justice isn’t only about righting past wrongs – it’s about providing the opportunity for the privileged and the vulnerable to encounter one another as individuals, rather than bureaucratic abstractions. Doing things at a local level forces those in a position of (sometimes unjust) advantage to personally witness the consequences of social injustice. It makes matters personal.

Being guided by these principles won’t yield any specific policy measures – that’s a matter for empirical study, consultancy and prudent political judgement, however, it will ensure that future policy decisions avoid either unchecked paternalism or ineffective, distant spending. Subsidiarity demands that policy solutions facilitate direct encounters between the people the policy is “for” and the people doing it “with” them.

Solidarity requires us to stop thinking in those binaries altogether.


Dr Matthew Beard is a moral philosopher at The Ethics Centre. Follow them on Twitter @ethics_centre.

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