Santa Kruz Papatoetoe Parish Youth last week laid down a challenge to the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission in three simple words: ‘Where Were You?”
Where were you when there was not enough food on the table; where were you when the family was kicked out of their state house and had no where to go; where were you when mum was dragged violently by the hair by Dad?
It was actually a challenge to everyone, us out there, the world that seemed to be too busy to notice. And it was uncomfortable but it was valid, youthful anger – and a call to activism.
Who are we out there, that they can call on, join up with and rally alongside? We are called civil society, an ancient idea that reaches back to Cicero and the Romans when, as a concept, it was integral to the State. It then re-emerged as parallel but separate from the State in the 18th century Enlightenment. Civil society was a place where citizens associated according to their interests and wishes.
Now in the age of modern democracy it is a popular term that captures everything that is outside the State (inclusive of political parties) and the Market. It is not just NGOs but all that sphere – from the Right to the Left of the ideological spectrum – including those that would contest the notion of the common or public good.
A good example of a burgeoning civil society that is occurring in Western democracies everywhere is seen in the Auckland housing crisis. A five minute tally of organisations on Facebook will put you in touch with a plethora of groups: Student Housing Action Group, State House Action Network, Housing NZ Tennants Forum, Save Pensioner Housing, Save Our State House Homes, Tamaki Housing Group, Housing Call to Action (West Auckland). This doesn’t include the groups that are also involved such as the the Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, Budget Advisory groups, the Living Wage Movement, NZEI, Waitemata Unite, and so on.
Does this array of organisations reflect a strong civil society or a dangerous weakness in our political environment? What is our ability to link together, to plan, act, and transform our communities into a force that politicians can’t resist?
The fact that there are politicians, (who are not part of civil society) mounting campaigns within civil society for housing and other screaming social needs, is testimony to our fragility and, more worryingly, our exposure to the subversion of democracy by the very same politicians who will have the power to act, or not act, as the all-powerful State when the pendulum swings their way.
As unions struggled to organise workers over the last 25 years governments de-regulated the labour market or sat back and watched organised labour fall apart. The art of civil society is to organise for the common good whereas the art of politicians is to compromise, for their own good.
The Living Wage Movement aims to connect the institutions of civil society together around their common purpose. The purpose that bound the groups together in 2012 and continues to define the Movement, is a Living Wage for working people and their families. But it is impossible to de-link wages from rent. jobs, transport, quality food or safer streets. This is the real world described by the Santa Kruz Youth.
What is then born is a broad-based movement of civil society – for the Common Good. This means the Movement is engaged in a fluid conversation but our action occurs around the concrete, winnable issues that emerge in our streets, suburbs and cities.
The 2016 elections for local government has enabled a conversation across unions, housing groups, churches, women’s organisations, community health providers and many others. Council candidates will be invited to election forums, the biggest of which will be a Mayoral and Waitemata Ward “People’s Assembly: An election special” on August 31 at St Matthew-in-the-City. Commitments will be sought on four inter-related issues: the Living Wage, housing, transport, and employment. If elected, councillors and the Mayor will be held to account.
The Santa Kruz Papatoetoe Parish Youth will join the Auckland People’s Assembly because they have a vision of a different society where the Minimum Wage does not strip their community of hope, health and happiness; where the Living Wage is a reality; and jobs, homes and public transport support decent lives.
After election day, October 8, as we celebrate or commiserate, re-organise and strategise will our new young activists ask:
“Where were you? Where were you on August 31st?”