The Political Perspective of Social Justice

Sometimes when people talk about something being ‘political’ they mean it is topical or controversial.  Actually, ‘politics’ just involves any of the activities or issues associated with governing a group (in this case a country or a state).  In Australia, and most other liberal democracies, politics involves a certain amount of conflict between ideas, and groups who have those ideas, about how to run the country.  Sometimes those different ideas are entirely opposed, but sometimes they are more similar than they appear.  The way democracy works is that the population chooses between those groups and ideas, and the group backed by most of the voters becomes the way a country is actually governed.

Politics is critical to the idea of social justice.  Politics is the forum for discussion and decisions about structures and systems that can lead us closer to, or further away from, social justice.  While social justice is everybody’s responsibility and privilege to pursue, our systems of government have the gigantic platform for developing the foundation that lead to, or addresses, hardship and injustice.  This is why so much social justice advocacy is focused directly on government and political parties – because this is where big changes can readily occur.

So there is no question that politics is important to social justice, but you might be wondering if social justice is important to politics?

The short answer is a resounding yes.

The long answer is still a resounding yes, but…

Social justice is a difficult concept to pin down.  Even if everyone can agree what the social justice outcome we want is there are differing views on how we can best achieve the outcome and, usually, all of those differing views are at least a little bit right.

In Australia, every political party represented in the Commonwealth Parliament either explicitly references social justice in their policy platform or uses words and concepts we would consider synonymous with social justice – a “fair go”, “equity”, “equality” or “opportunity for all”.  The concept of social justice is baked into the Australian political system but it often does not feel that way; even if the same words are being used, that doesn’t mean all sides are talking about the same thing.

There are so many different social justice issues that it is natural that individuals pick just some to focus on.  Sometimes, the solution to one social justice issue might exacerbate another.  For example, some of the most effective ways to tackle climate change would increase the cost of food and energy.  If other policies are not put in place to support people on low incomes, climate change action could disproportionately disadvantage people in poverty or financial hardship.  This does not mean that no action should be taken – it just explains why some political parties will preference policies that look like social justice action from one angle, but not from another.

Even when everyone agrees on the social justice outcome there can be very real disputes about how to best achieve that outcome.  One of the central differences between the two major sides of politics in Australia is actually about economic approach rather than desired outcome.  There is credible evidence to support both approaches it is just that, as we saw with climate action above, every social policy outcome needs to be carefully balanced and calibrated – and that is an incredibly difficult task. 

In Australia we have an independent bureaucracy which helps with that task by applying skill and evidence to problems outside of the electoral cycle.  The Australian Public Service, and those of every state and territory, helps to even out the differences between the two major parties to ensure that there is consistent social policy progress irrespective of who is in power.  But our elected officials are ultimately in charge, so whichever party wins power, that will be the approach to social justice issues at least until the next election.  That brings us to probably the most important point about a political approach to social justice:

Although every politician comes with their own views about social justice, what it means and how to achieve it, at the end of the day they work for the people they represent.  Their job is not just to govern the country, but to govern in a way that is in line with what they promised when they were elected.

That opens up a range of options for those who are trying to influence decisions to achieve social justice outcomes:

  1. Because social justice is a major concern of almost all politicians, we have something in common – sometimes it can feel like someone on the other side is never going to agree with us but actually, if we look for it, there will often be common ground.
  2. We need to think about the destination, but also how to get there – it might be that people disagree with a policy, not because of what it is trying to achieve but because they can see an unintended consequence.  It is important to explore all the impacts of an idea, listen to why people have concerns and then work to finding a solution that minimizes negative impacts.
  3. Talk to more than just the party in power – many people have input into implementing social justice initiatives and while it is definitely worth talking to the government, it is also worth talking to the opposition and cross-benches and the bureaucracy because everyone has a role to play.
  4. Contact your local representatives – Your local politicians are there not just to lead but to listen to those they represent.  They want, and need, to know what you think – so tell them!

Social Justice Champion:

It is very hard to pick a ‘Social Justice Champion’ in the political field – not because there aren’t any but because there are so many and they are so different from each other.  No political action is achieved by a single person – usually there are many people involved in pushing for, designing and then implementing a change and each of them are social justice champions in their own way.

Below is just a small sample of the breadth of social justice activity in Australia’s political history.  None of these actions completely removed hardship and injustice, but each of them moved us closer to where we need to be:

  • National Apology to the Stolen Generations – On the 13th of February 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a formal apology for the past government policies of child removal and assimilation.
  • Pregnancy Alcohol Warnings – New requirements for mandatory pregnancy warning labels on packaged alcoholic beverages were gazetted in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code (the Code) on 31 July 2020.
  • Gender Equity – On 18 December 1894 the South Australian Parliament passed the Constitutional Amendment (Adult Suffrage) Act. This was the first in Australia, and the first in the world to allow women to be elected as Members of Parliament.
  • Referendum to Count Aboriginal Australians – 1967 Referendum in which Australians voted overwhelmingly to amend the Constitution to allow the Commonwealth to make laws for Aboriginal people and include them in the census.
  • No Child in Poverty- Australia’s Prime Minister Bob Hawke said: “By 1990, no Australian child will be living in poverty,” at the ALP’s election campaign launch on June 23, 1987. Now don’t get us wrong, this didn’t happen, but to date it has done more to alleviate child poverty than any other policy like it.
  • Free Medical Care – Gough Whitlam created Medibank as a key policy proposal in 1972. What we now know as Medicare, gave Australian’s free access to hospitals and a range of medical services.
  • National Disability Insurance Scheme  – introduced by the Gillard Government on 1 July 2013 and grown by each subsequent government the NDIS radically changed the way disability support is funded and delivered given people with disability a level of choice, control and dignity in risk that had never been the case before.
  • Racial Discrimination Act – 1975: promotes equality before the law for all people regardless of race, colour or national or ethnic origin. It is unlawful to discrimination against people on the basis of race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin.
  • Modern Slavery Act – The Commonwealth Modern Slavery Act 2018 came into force on the 1st of January 2019. The Act established a national Modern Slavery Reporting Requirement.
  • Harm reduction – introduction of needle and syringe programs (1986) and medically supervised injecting facilities (2001).
  • Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 (Vic) – Victorian law that sets out the protected rights of all people in Victoria as well as the corresponding obligations on the Victorian Government to enact them.
  • Returning Aboriginal Land – In 1975 Gough Whitlam returned the traditional lands of the Gurindji people to Vincent Lingiari, pouring the red dirt into his hands.

Jennifer Kirkaldy is General Manager for the Policy and Advocacy Stream of The Salvation Army Australia

*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Salvation Army

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