Unsilencing civil society

One of the most fundamental public policy initiatives required from the new Rudd Labor
Government has not even rated a mention during the campaign. I refer to a reversal of the
systematic suppression under the Howard Government of the ability of Australian
civil society to advocate publicly.

Almost every year of the Howard period saw the introduction of a new measure aimed at silencing NGOs and removing them from the public debate. The cumulative effect of these measures has weakened our democracy.

Elsewhere, I have documented the mechanisms employed by the former government
and shown that they are consistent with an economic theory masquerading as a
theory of democracy – namely public choice theory. This is a neo-liberal theory which applauds good works – planting trees and supporting the homeless – but sees attempts
to influence public policy as ‘interfering with the market’. It is a very narrow view of democracy.

In a healthy democracy, the non-government sector reflects the aspirations of our society
back to us.
I refer, for example, to social service, environment, international development, consumer rights, ethnic affairs, the social justice arms of churches and women’s groups. NGOs are engines of ideas which can provide alternative visions for us to contest, refine, accept or reject. Their contributions ensure that the development of public policy receives comment and the input of legitimate expertise from as many sources as possible.

The use of government funding as a silencing mechanism has included explicit funding cuts for groups critical of the government, purchaser-provider contracts in which recipients deliver the Government’s agenda rather than serving their members’ interests, and, importantly, so called ‘confidentiality clauses’ which forbid organisations from speaking to the media.

However, silencing mechanisms involving direct funding have been only one tool in the Howard kitbag. Organisations which rely on donations and eschew government money have also been under siege. The last five years has seen a running battle between NGOs and the Howard Government with various moves to abolish tax deductibility for organisations speaking on government policy.

The main mechanism has been the use of restrictive Tax Office rulings. That battle has seen some success for the Government, and was still continuing as the election was called, with a key case yet to appear before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. There
has also been new legislation to get NGOs to report to government on aspects of their activities, and legislation which targets freedom of speech especially of animal welfare groups, but which also has wider implications for the sector.

Why have NGOs let this happen without more public outcry? While the sector knew it was under siege, until recently its diffuse nature has hindered it from understanding the full implications of what has been happening. Turnover of personnel, lack of resources and fear of retribution may have contributed to the slow response. It would seem to be only in the past twelve months with the calling of a National Civil Society Dialogue in October last
year by the Australian Conservation Foundation, Australian Council of Social Services, Australian Council of Trade Union and the National Council of Churches, that information has permeated down from the leadership to the wider sector about the seriousness of the situation.
It has been the cumulative effect of one mechanism after another, all intended to restrict public debate, that has finally begun to be understood as a diminution of our public sphere and a serious threat to Australia’s democracy.

Will the new Rudd Labor Government roll back the many mechanisms that have slowly been smothering NGO voices?
Although Kim Beazley gave one speech recognising ‘the important advocacy role played by the community sector’, the Rudd-Gillard team has been silent on the issue.

On two occasions as Shadow Minister for Social Inclusion, Julia Gillard, directed her attention primarily to the social services area with a couple of new initiatives, such as appointment of a Social Inclusion Board and a social inclusion co-ordinating office in the Prime Minister’s Department. Some elements of the speeches appeared to be directed towards the constituency of ‘Howard’s battlers’. However, it is their language
that is their most notable feature. They appear to justify the worth of the sector wholly in terms of its economic-productivity value, rather than its social-democratic value. Their language is dominated by phrases such as ‘investment’ in ‘human capital’, on ‘building social inclusion through hard economics’, on ‘raising national prosperity’, and on ‘investment’ from which a return will be expected.

Non-government organisations are described as the ‘social economy’ – a term foreign to Australia – which refers to the European Union name for the sector, l’economie sociale. The Productivity Commission will also be asked to develop a new tool to measure NGO
contribution to the economy.

Unfortunately, the silencing mechanisms are embedded as policy in a multiplicity of Federal Government Departments. The sector is going to have its work cut out,
firstly to have the new Government acknowledge this issue and secondly to have
the practices removed.

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