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Reframing Social Justice

By Noel Preston - posted Monday, 1 May 2006

In the last three or four decades I have rejoiced when the forces promoting social justice were seemingly victorious: as when the Whitlam and Fraser governments legislated for human rights; or when people power swept the Filipino dictator Marcos out of office; when the segregation laws of the USA’s southern states were over-ridden; and most especially when Nelson Mandela led the ANC beyond the era of South African apartheid. But in every case the promise of these dramatic social changes was not fulfilled.

Subsequently, a certain disillusionment eventually soured the struggle for social justice. By the 1990s the rhetoric of social justice was abandoned even by certain social reformers who began to champion “a third way”. The instruction of my lifetime leads me to temper programs for justice with realism, for an ideal like social justice, though essential, will remain elusive in practice. Moreover, campaigns for social justice may have ambiguous, even counter productive, outcomes.

As the term “social justice” was omitted more and more from the lexicon of Australian governments in the 1990s even social justice advocates showed a preference for less confronting nomenclature like “social inclusion”. In fact shifts in the social discourse indicate how individualism has supplanted a sense of the common good: we now accept the reification of “the economy” or the “market-place”; the new economic-speak refers to “customers” while we hear too little of the concept of “citizenship”; we rarely speak of the “public service”, hearing rather of a “public sector” which has been “downsized, outsourced and corporatised”.


We need to recover an understanding that the ethical justification for economic arrangements is that they serve “the common good”. As John Ralston Saul’s treatise The Unconscious Civilization suggests, it is time for us to wake up to the fact that we must recover a sense of public responsibility based on an ethic of interdependence - a notion fundamental to what we mean by social justice.

Consequently, in some quarters, as with the Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party, concepts like “equality” become bastardised, emptied of any sense of the affirmative action which equality with justice requires for severely disadvantaged groups. John Howard’s clean sweep to victory in the 2004 Federal election further entrenched the cultural hegemony of individualism while threatening the Australian ethos of a “fair go”.

Right-wing influences have eroded the sense of “justice as fairness” - made philosophically relevant in liberal democracies by the impact of the Harvard academic, John Rawls. Rawls effectively revived the Aristotelian dictum that there is nothing so unequal as the equal treatment of unequals, emphasising that discrimination is warranted when it aids the disadvantaged.

A recent assault on this approach was the flirtation with mandatory sentencing in some Australian jurisdictions preventing the criminal justice system from dispensing justice in an appropriately discriminatory way. Even more outrageous was the appropriation of the language of justice by George W. Bush after September 11, 2001, who named his retaliation on terrorism “Operation Infinite Justice”.

In my view, to abandon the term justice (and its content) to this right wing agenda and to submit to taunts about “bleeding hearts” from some political quarters is to deny the fruits of both the biblical prophetic tradition and the hard won gains of the liberal social democratic tradition. That is why, in 2001, when I was asked to develop an initiative for the Uniting Church’s community service group in Queensland, I was delighted we rejected the pleas of some that the term, “social justice”, was passé or counter productive. Instead we nominated the initiative, the Centre for Social Justice.

A key element of that Centre’s activity has been to focus on the reality of poverty and financial disadvantage in Australia’s hitherto egalitarian society. Certain opinion making forces, such as the conservative think tank Centre for Independent Studies, have exploited the complexity of this matter, particularly in relation to the problematic use of poverty lines.


While the claim can be validly made that in recent years the poorest in Australian society have had some improvement in their living standards, the undeniable and disturbing fact is that Australia is becoming an hourglass society with a shrinking middle class in which the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting relatively poorer, while access to the bulwarks of a fair society, quality public education and healthcare, is becoming more difficult for more and more citizens.

Unfortunately, the creation of so called choice in these matters for those who aspire to greater affluence has become a platform of social policy, threatening to overtake the struggling minority for whom choice and aspiration is a cruel hoax. In such circumstances an insistence on social justice is imperative.

On a larger scale, in a globalised world with its technologically driven economies, let alone on an environmentally threatened planet, an understanding of social justice must be revisited. The conceptual boundaries traditionally circumscribing this term must be expanded. Only when we reframe the economic agenda to start seeing it as one which serves the planetary community will we have a chance of establishing the common good.

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Based on an extract from Noel Preston's latest book, Beyond the Boundary: a memoir exploring ethics, politics and spirituality (Zeus Publications, April 2006).

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About the Author

Dr Noel Preston is Adjunct Professor in the Griffith University Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance. He is the author of Understanding Ethics (20O1, Federation Press, Sydney), and several texts on public sector ethics. His web page can be found here.

Noel Preston’s recent book is Beyond the Boundary: a memoir exploring ethics, politics and spirituality (Zeus Publications).

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