Advocacy? What’s that?

What is an advocate? An advocate is someone who works to ensure that the group they represent is treated fairly by the government and/or society. It sounds simple, but sadly it is typically not so straightforward, and is frequently misinterpreted by those who claim to advocate. I would like to take a little time to clarify a few important points.

Being an advocate for an underprivileged and/or unrepresented group does not mean one provides blanket, unquestioning support for every single thing a member of that group says or does. Advocates are not defence attorneys; they do not seek to relieve a group completely of responsibility for their actions, and nor do they hope to unduly benefit their group simply because the opportunity exists. Advocates are not politicians.

Advocates work to ensure that a fair and just outcome occurs in issues where unfairness is perceived by a member, or the whole of a the group they represent. Sometimes, the perception of a member is deemed to be unfounded by the group. Sometimes, the perceived unfairness is unintended by the perpetrator, and the group recognises there was a lack of malice. Sometimes, the individual alleging unfairness is shown to have done so for personal purposes. Advocates are not meant to blindly work for individuals in these circumstances, and nor should they, for by doing so they disadvantage the position of their group by colouring the perception of it by the community-at-large.

Recently, I have noticed a number of so-called ‘advocates’ in this country appear to have forgotten these simple guidelines — individuals who claim to advocate for indigenous peoples that flatly dismiss the Northern Territory intervention; people who claim to advocate for refugees that place their support behind applicants found to have no legitimate claim, or who fail character checks. These examples stab at the heart of advocacy — advocacy is not about ambulance chasing, or the number of times an ‘advocate’ can get their name in print, or their face on television.

There is no benefit to the whole of the group of refugees, for example, if the general public feels that there is an all-or-nothing position held by those who purport to advocate for them. Generally, the public will go with ‘nothing’, since they assume that they will continue to be the target of derision and abuse by said ‘advocates’ irregardless of what, if any, concessions they choose to offer. This is obviously not productive; unfortunately, in Australia these tactics seems to be quite common.

In many cases, such a position erodes the credibility of those who ‘advocate’ for a group. For those who claim to advocate for the welfare of indigenous Australians, in particular those who live in the Northern Territory, to say that there has been absolutely no benefit to the quarantining of assistance payments only causes a large portion of the general population to scratch their heads whilst attempting to fathom the lack of logic in such a statement. Obviously, those who engage in casual substance abuse, or those who have difficulties managing money will benefit from quarantining of payments, regardless of what race they are. To say then, further, that said policy is racist because it targets a community where most, but not all of its members are of indigenous descent leads to further incomprehension, as the substantially higher rate of substance abuse in that community as a whole has been adequately measured, and such actions should be easily justified.

I am by no means saying that there are no merits to the multitude of finer points in any of the arguments I describe; but, it makes it far more difficult to engage in public discussion of those more ‘minor’, but far more important points when self-described self-promoting ‘advocates’ stand there with megaphones making blanket inflammatory generalisations about issues about which they appear to either have little or no understanding, or make cyclical, unreasonable arguments seemingly with no desire or intention of ever reaching any form of resolution in their regard.

These ‘professional advocates’ cause me great concern. In my experience, a true advocate would never consider advocacy to be their profession, instead feeling that they are providing a service to their community out of a desire to make that community equal in standing to others. If there is no unfairness towards their community, then there is no need for advocacy, and a true advocate will be satisfied and move on to other matters until unfairness returns — if it ever does.

An advocate should not seek to unfairly advantage their group. To do so would fly in the face of the principles of advocacy. Cynical arguments to justify “getting what we deserve” have no purpose in advocacy, and these should be shunned and rebuked by others who practice the art.

Advocates must remember that they are there to ensure that balance and fairness exists not only for the group they represent, but for the various interests in society as a whole. The purpose of the pursuit is to strive for a world wherein no person will be disadvantaged due to unfounded, arbitrary thought regardless of to what group, or groups, that person belongs; the purpose of the pursuit is not to encourage inappropriate advantage for individuals or groups, nor abuse or interfere with established processes simply to provide inappropriate opportunities for an individual or a group.

If you follow these principles, and strive to ensure fair and balanced treatment both for members of your group, and by members of your group toward society at large, then in my opinion you are entitled to call yourself an advocate. If you seek to advantage members of the group you represent unfairly and without consideration, you are not. After all, fairness is about fairness, and equity about equity — for everyone.

Advocacy? What’s that?

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