Why the extraordinary generosity?


Contributors to New Matilda this past week have so far skirted around an analysis of the reasons for the extraordinary magnanimity of the Australian people in response to the Boxing Day Asian tsunami “ a generosity that if Monday’s one day cricket match is any example, so far shows no signs of abating.

Isn’t this an extraordinary response from fellow Australians that many of us, me included, were castigating for their narcissism and willingness to put perceptions of which party could best deliver economic security ahead of social justice, effective community development through sound education and health policies and truth in government after the recent federal election?

Why? What is driving it? Is this a unique situation or are there lessons to be learned from this response about ways in which the Australian community might be engaged in responding to some of the domestic issues we face that require a concerted national response that unites governments and the people they serve “ degradation of our physical environment, lost educational opportunities for our young people, the failure to deal with the consequences of trauma and dispossession amongst our Aboriginal peoples to name a few?

Well, here are some ideas. Hugh Mackay and his ilk maybe need to test these and other ideas within their community focus groups to see how well they stand up.

First, the timing of the disaster has contributed significantly to its level of impact in the community, and is one of the factors that underlies the different level of response to other natural disasters, such as the cyclones in Bangla Desh in the early 90s. People were in a relaxed post-Christmas haze removed from their normal day-to-day absorption with the cares of work, school and home and were easily engaged with an event that had stunning and heartrending visual images. We were actively engaged in observing the appalling evolution of the worst and most widespread natural disaster in recent history. The current affairs reporting of our national TV networks has been exemplary in helping us to come to grips with the scale, impact and personal stories contained within this disaster. Channel 9’s embedding of Ray Martin in Aceh has been a stroke of genius.

Second, as a nation whose populace hugs the shoreline of this vast and ancient continent, we realised that there ‘but for the grace of God’ could be many of us. Many Australians have also visited some of the places affected “ nearly all of us know someone who has. We were separated from the disaster by one or fewer degrees.

Third, the cause of the disaster was clear and unambiguous. Its effects were instantaneous and involved no human agency. (The possible role of God in the causation of the disaster was a sideshow that engaged few players, most people preferring to see the event as a harshly inevitable downside to the natural world.) It was thus a ‘clean’ problem in comparison with the often larger (in terms of human lives affected) ‘wicked’ and more longstanding disasters arising from human conflict in places like the Middle East and Sudan that have resulted in the slaughter, injury or displacement of much larger populations. In these ‘wicked’ conflicts, agreement about who is the villain is not always universal and an understanding of context is needed to make a judgement about which side is the more worthy of support.

Understanding context demands higher level language and thought processing skills and ideas that are not readily converted to easily digested visual images for mass consumption. How many of us could give a balanced explanation about the reasons for the Sudanese conflict and the influx of refugees into Australia? And the problems have often existed unresolved for years. Aid agencies stand little chance of eliciting the same level of support in such circumstances.

Fourth, the nations affected are amongst our nearest neighbours, even although our cultural heritage is largely different (although that’s not so with Indigenous Australians who have a greater shared heritage, and those who have immigrated from the affected countries). As such, we have felt a sense of identity, responsibility and solidarity with those affected in a way that would arguably have been less likely if the disaster had affected South America or the west coast of Africa. I think, too, that we have been keen to show our neighbours “ and indeed the rest of the world – that we are fundamentally a generous people, and they should not be put off by some of the messages that, from the way we have treated asylum seekers in recent times, might suggest otherwise. Whilst our level of giving has been disproportionately larger than most other industrialised countries, isn’t it this most logically interpreted as just a sign of solidarity and concern from one’s nearest neighbour rather than a self-aggrandising, narcissistic effort to scramble to the top of league table of donors?

Fifth, the response of the people has been echoed by the Australian government. The degree of synergy in the generous responses of government and the Australian people to this crisis have fed off and emboldened each other in a way that has not occurred in recent times “ probably not since the Second World War 60 years ago. This is so different from the divisions within the community and between community and government in response to many other international crises or serious domestic issues “ Vietnam, Iraq, our treatment of asylum seekers, widening socioeconomic inequality, or the health and welfare of indigenous Australians. This time the attitudes and aspirations of the ‘mob’ have been reflected in what our government has done and plans to do on our behalf and we “ even those who have been opposed to many of its policies in other realms “ are keen to congratulate them “ ministers and officials – for it. Little did John Howard know when Opposition Leader for the first time in the 1980s how prophetic his words ‘The times will suit me’ would turn out to be as a theme underpinning his prime ministership.

So, can we learn anything from this phenomenon in how the Australian community might be engaged in dealing with some of the domestic issues that are fashionable concerns of the left-leaning latté set? Probably not a lot, unless the suspicions and resistance of ordinary Australians to agendas imposed by academics, intellectuals and other self-styled opinion leaders, can be overcome. This agenda was set by nature, not an élite. The Australian people though, in this phenomenal response, as in the election of Gough Whitlam 32 years ago, have nevertheless clearly demonstrated they will commit to and invest in an agenda with which they identify, even if it is promoted and articulated by an élite. The trick is to provide hope where there is despair, a vision of life as it might be rather than as it is likely to be without our engagement and to craft policies that respond to the human stories as well as the evidence of what might work better. The challenge for Australians concerned about indifference to need and lost opportunities at home is to work collaboratively to develop and articulate a package that provides hope, vision and social equity to which most Australians can subscribe.

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