Suppression of NFP Advocacy Damages Democracy – Report
23 February 2016 at 10:31 am
A new report has called on federal and state governments to stop using funding levers, ranging from gag clauses in funding agreements to targeted funding cuts, to suppress advocacy and criticism from community organisations.
The report by the Human Rights Law Centre called Safeguarding Democracy was launched in Canberra this week.
The report said “governments are adopting new laws and practices that undermine critical components of Australia’s democracy like press freedom, the rule of law, protest rights, NGO advocacy and courts and other institutions”.
It makes 38 recommendations to governments to address issues around democracy and the right to advocate.
“Governments are using a range of funding levers to stifle advocacy by non-government organisations that represent vulnerable minorities,” the report said.
“Environmental groups who challenge the fossil fuel industry are facing threats to their financial viability though attempts to remove their charity tax concessions. A number of states have enacted excessive and unnecessary anti-protest laws that prioritise business and political interests over protest rights.
“Australia’s success owes much to the activism and engagement of Australia’s community sector and civil society. Behind many of the rights, laws and policies we now enjoy and often take for granted, lie years and sometimes decades of hard work – campaigning, organising and advocating to raise awareness of problems and to push for reform.”
The report said the Australian Attorney-General had changed funding agreements to prohibit community legal centres from using Commonwealth funding to undertake law reform or policy work, and New South Wales had done the same.
“A parliamentary inquiry is investigating whether environmental organisations should have their deductible gift recipient status removed – a move that would threaten their existence.
Community organisations have been given a clear message: if you speak out against the government, you risk losing your funding,” the report said.
The 2014 budget cut $6 million from community legal centres, along with $15 million from legal aid commissions and $43 million from advocacy services.
The report recommended an enabling tax environment, including deductible gift recipient status for environmental groups to ensure that they can continue their work and advocacy, for the purpose of advancing the natural environment.
It called on parliament to create an environment that enables advocacy by community organisations by strengthening the Not-for-profit Freedom to Advocate Act 2013 to prevent government using funding as a lever to stifle advocacy by community organisations.
It called on the Attorney-General to remove clauses from funding agreements with community legal centres that prohibit government funding being used in law reform, policy and advocacy work.
Recommendations from the Safeguarding Democracy Report – Human Rights Law Centre CEO of the Australian Council of Social Service, Dr Cassandra Goldie, said at the launch of the report that community organisations made a vital contribution to society and the economy, from running homeless shelters to supporting people with disabilities to engage in the decisions that affect them.
“Advocacy is a key element of this contribution. It improves laws and policies and ensures the voices of vulnerable groups are heard in policy debates. Yet savage cuts through the last two Federal Budgets have eroded the contribution of many of these organisations,” Dr Goldie said.
“Instead of removing support for advocacy by community organisations, governments should welcome and encourage it, even when it’s uncomfortable for them. The health of our democracy relies on it.”
CEO of the Australian Conservation Foundation, Kelly O’Shanassy, said environmental advocacy had protected some of the country’s most valued natural landmarks.
“From the Franklin River to the Great Barrier Reef, conservation groups have played a vital role in protecting Australia’s special places,” O’Shanassy said.
“Instead of trying to silence conservation groups through political attacks on charity tax concessions, the Government should encourage them to speak out. It’s in all of our interests.”
The report said the Federal Government had defunded a range of peak organisations that represented the views of their sectors and constituencies including the representative body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples.
“Our organisation provides a national voice for our people. It provides leadership, advocacy, advice and expertise. Our board is directly elected by our membership which is open to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations,” Congress Co-Chair Jackie Huggins said.
“The government has cut our funding and appointed its own hand-picked advisory group. It’s a huge backward step for self-determination, reconciliation and our people’s future. It’s a huge backward step for our democracy.”
Executive Director of the Human Rights Law Centre, Hugh de Kretser, said open government, a free press, a strong and diverse civil society, and the rule of law were “some of the vital foundations of our democracy”.
“Yet we are witnessing an unmistakeable trend in Australia of governments eroding these foundations with new laws and practices that entrench secrecy and stifle criticism and accountability.
“We need to stop this corrosive trend and strengthen our democracy. This report outlines a way forward. With an election later this year, it’s time for our politicians to commit to upholding our democracy.”