Memo to Scott Morrison: Why Taxpayers Should Fund Advocacy
3 June 2014 at 11:39 am
The Australian Government's current view on advocacy is dangerous to democracy and to civil society, writes Dr Joyce Chia, Senior Research Associate at the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at UNSW.
Here we go again. Last week, the Refugee Council of Australia had almost a quarter of its funding cut by the Minister for Immigration, despite having been allocated that money in the Budget.
The Minister defended the decision by saying that it was the Australian Government's view that taxpayer money should not fund advocacy. This is of course the same line we heard during the Howard Government, and a line we have heard repeatedly under the current Government as it has cut funding to community organisations and peak bodies month after month.
Our Attorney-General, George Brandis, clearly reflected this view when he asked the Arts Council not to fund any arts organisations that refused corporate sponsorship (and, in the process, entirely misunderstood both the independence of such organisations and the essence of governance).
This view also, ironically, expresses a deep misunderstanding of the Coalition Government's own favoured term 'civil society', which became popular because of the ability of civil society movements such as Poland's Solidarity to trigger the downfall of governments.
Most importantly, however, the Australian Government's view on advocacy is dangerous. It is dangerous, of course, for those organisations and those they help, most of whom represent particularly vulnerable groups in society – refugees, the Indigenous, the sick, those needing access to justice.
It is also, however, dangerous because advocacy is the lifeblood of our democracy and our civil society. Advocacy is, simply put, the way people and groups of people exercise their freedom of expression in a democracy. It is how we talk to each other in the public sphere, how we inform our public decisions, and one of the most important and effective ways in which we change our policies, laws, government, society, and the world.
The Australian Government's view of advocacy by community organisations sits rather oddly, to put it politely, with its proclaimed reverence for freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is not merely the right of an individual, but an indispensable part of the democratic process. By stifling voices in this debate, we debase the quality of the information that feeds into our decision-making processes, we reduce the capacity of our democracy to represent the whole spectrum of our society, and we impoverish the nature of our public discourse.
Freedom of expression, however, is not a perfect free market. There are, and always will be, vulnerable groups that are unable to speak for themselves – asylum seekers (among other things) who cannot vote, the sick who are busy battling their illnesses, the poor who are just scraping by. It is because these people cannot adequately represent themselves that others are needed to represent them. Government funding of these organisations, therefore, represents a broad commitment to the inclusion and representation of these vulnerable groups within our public sphere. It is a way to mitigate the deficiencies of democracy in an unequal society. This is true both of direct government spending, and of indirect government funding by way of tax concessions to charities.
Charities, Not for Profits, community organisations, the third sector and/or civil society (pick your favourite label) have been fighting to have their right to freedom of expression recognised for some time. Not too long ago, they appeared to be winning – the High Court had recognised that charities could indeed advocate without losing their status as charities; the Charities Act 2013 (Cth) entrenched that understanding; and the Not-for-profit (Freedom to Advocate) Act 2013 prohibited the Commonwealth Government from gagging those they funded.
These funding cuts, the threatened de-funding of arts organisations, and the foreshadowed repeal of the Charities Act demonstrate that this battle has not yet been won. If it is lost, the consequences will be dramatic – we can expect wave after wave of new policies to be introduced with inadequate consultation and public discussion in areas including Indigenous policy, youth policy, refugee policy, and access to justice.
This time, there are advantages that were not readily available last time, such as social media, crowdsourcing, online donations, greater fundraising nous, and some important legal protections. Perhaps most importantly, this time we know what is at stake, because we know what happened the last time the battle was lost.
About the Author: Dr Joyce Chia is the Senior Research Associate at the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at UNSW. She was awarded her PhD on comparative immigration and refugee law at University College London in 2009. She has previously worked as a Senior Policy Officer at the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, as a Research Fellow at Melbourne Law School, a Legal Officer at the Australian Law Reform Commission, and as a Research Associate at the Federal Court of Australia and the Victorian Court of Appeal.