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Grassroots, not government? Maxim Institute ponders social justice

By Julia Stuart

Connecting people is at the heart of social justice, according to Maxim Institute director Greg Fleming.

Opening the well-attended ‘Pursuing Social Justice in New Zealand’ forum in Auckland on March 30th, Greg Fleming said we need to stop looking to government to provide what the community does better.

“Social justice is at the heart of a free, just and compassionate society. It makes demands on each of us to care, give and be involved in the communities in which we live,” he said.

Keynote speaker professor Peter Saunders from the Centre for Independent Studies in Australia took a similar approach. “Government policies weaken communities when they remove the need for people to come together,” Peter said. “Just because something is good doesn’t mean the state should provide it.

“There is never agreement on the meaning of social justice. It has become highly politicized.”

Families Commissioner Lyn Campbell also emphasized personal involvement. “Real transformation takes place in people’s lives when they are connected to others in a meaningful way,” she said. “There are no short-cuts to social justice. We must be prepared to get our hands dirty.”

The anti-big government theme was paramount throughout the half-day Forum, in which both keynote speakers and videos of successful community social programmes reiterated the ‘grassroots good, government bad’ mantra.

It was picked up again by the deputy leader of the National Party, one of three politicians in a panel discussion on how government can reinvigorate civil society. Bill English said large government solutions have reached their natural limit.

“There are countless government-funded programmes that consist only of a launch,” he said to approving laughter from the audience. He then announced that National Party policy was to remove the tax-rebate cap on charitable donations from both individuals and corporations.

Myron Friesen of Canterbury University made the most comprehensive attempt to define social justice. He summarised his Maxim-funded research, which used a web-based questionnaire (www.socialjustice.co.nz) to find out what Kiwis think about social justice. From his 240 responses (mostly from university students), he concluded that the “variability of the response is greater than the consensus” and that “the understanding of social justice is still ambiguous”.

By the end of the day, no cohesive understanding of social justice had emerged. Audience members seemed no clearer. Rev Ron Mills, who attended on behalf of CASI (the Churches Agency on Social Issues) noticed the reluctance to define. “All I picked up was the emphasis on grassroots activity rather than government-funded programmes,” he commented later. “I tried to probe this but didn’t get very far.”

Others noted a similar reluctance. “Like other mainstream denominations, our church has a strong strand of social teaching based on solid theology,” said Catholic bishop Peter Cullinane. “This Forum seems to me to be rather confused and some speakers are quite na?ve.”