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Who is responsible?  

John Fox | 3 April 2007

Published in The Northland Age, 3 April 2007

When it comes to building the country we all want to live in, everyone has ideas. But we ask less often what we as individuals and communities can do to tackle, or to face, our huge social problems of disconnection, family breakdown, and hopelessness.

The Maxim Institute Forum 2007, Pursuing Social Justice in New Zealand, held last Friday asked that question. Over 220 delegates from a range of community groups, churches, businesses and other professional organisations came to discuss social justice, what a just, cohesive and decent society looks like, and who is responsible for delivering it.

Joining us were three politicians from across the political spectrum: Green MP Sue Bradford, United Future Leader Peter Dunne, and National Deputy Leader Hon Bill English. They debated the question: “How can government respond to the challenge of reinvigorating civil society in New Zealand?”

Ms Bradford focused on “collective responsibility”. She said that the government should help charities more, and, unsurprisingly for a former professional activist, emphasised the vital role charities play in advocacy, standing up for their people at the coal-face.

Bill English, by contrast, wanted to devolve responsibility and power from the State to the community. He was scathing of government programmes which do not deliver for families and communities, saying that many of them sink without trace, and deliver few results. Instead, he wanted social justice to grow from the ground and the grass roots up, and be supported, not imposed or jerrymandered by the government. Sue Bradford said this approach detracted from collective responsibility for the poor and marginalised; Mr English responded that life was full of a variety of collectives, from family to community organisations as well as central and local government, and it was nonsensical to always give all the responsibility to the biggest, bluntest and most brutal collective—the government.

Peter Dunne said that both of these approaches were wrong and old-fashioned, and lauded to the skies the “radical centre” approach represented by himself, which is apparently free of the taint of ideology. We should sit down and be sensible, says the Minister of Revenue.

The fault lines of approach centred on that big question: Who is responsible?

In many ways, paying the government to do everything and baptising it “collective responsibility” is the easy option. But this approach has severe limitations. Governments are blunt, brutal and distant. Communities, by contrast, can and do care for their neighbours. There will always be a place for a government safety net, but when it comes to who is responsible for our friends, neighbours, communities and our country, social justice is too important to leave to politicians or bureaucrats. Connection, belonging and compassion are not characteristics of government departments, but people and people in community.

We must do our bit too, knuckle down and pull together, so as to build the country we want. That’s our job, not just the Prime Minister’s, and we are all responsible for it.

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