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Advocacy Under Threat as NFPs Engage in Self-Silencing

12 December 2017 at 8:49 am
Wendy Williams
Australian charities are self-silencing for fear of risking their financial security or attracting political retribution, according to a new report.

Wendy Williams | 12 December 2017 at 8:49 am


Advocacy Under Threat as NFPs Engage in Self-Silencing
12 December 2017 at 8:49 am

Australian charities are self-silencing for fear of risking their financial security or attracting political retribution, according to a new report.

Civil Voices, an initiative by Pro Bono Australia and the Human Rights Law Centre, has found civil society organisations are feeling pressured to take a more cautious approach to advocacy in order to sustain and protect their other functions and services.

The research, carried out by academics at the University of Melbourne and launched on Tuesday, set out to examine how public debate and advocacy has evolved over a decade and whether NGO perceptions of their capacity to participate in public debate has changed.

It found “public debate in Australia is not as healthy as it ought to be in a developed liberal democracy”.

“Despite some disquiet across the sector, many organisations report that they engage in some form of ‘self-silencing’ – treading very carefully in their advocacy work less they risk financial security and political retribution,” the report said.

“Australian civil society needs to be reinvigorated, supported, and encouraged to engage in frank and fearless advocacy.

“The more the silencing of civil society is normalised the higher the risk becomes to the overall quality of Australian democracy.”

Report co-author, University of Melbourne Associate Professor Sarah Maddison said the main finding was “fairly insidious”.

“We’ve moved away from the really overtly hostile period of governance of the civil society sector. Instead what we are seeing is that the sector itself has taken on board some of those concerns into a mode of operation that we’re calling ‘self-silencing’,” Maddison said.

“Our once vocal, sometimes strident, advocacy sector, bringing the voice and the experience of Australia’s most marginalised communities to the fore and helping government make better policy has been effectively silenced both by governments and now by itself.”

Civil Voices builds on the Australia Institute-led report Silencing Dissent: Non-Government Organisations and Australian Democracy, which was co-authored by Maddison in 2004.

Revisiting the topic 13 years later, researchers found the data presented a complex picture where debate was being stifled in Australia on a number of fronts which, when combined together, presented a powerful picture of a sector that was losing its voice.

“If we think about the lack of media resources, in a crowded and noisy media environment, in which one in five organisations are still actively silenced by funding agreements, and 12 per cent by pressure from a board or management, we get a sense of the complex environment in which the sector is operating and their perceived need to carefully manage the risks associated with advocacy work,” Maddison said.

“The data clearly suggests that public debate is further limited through self-censorship because of implied repercussions (from within or outside the organisation) stemming from fears of government funding cuts or loss of DGR status.”

A total of 1,462 people responded to the survey (30 per cent of whom were not-for-profit CEOs).

According to the report 83 per cent of respondents have DGR status, and regard it as essential to their financial well-being, yet 40 per cent directly link the airing of dissenting viewpoints as a threat to their DGR status.

More than half of respondents (53 per cent) believed NGOs were pressured to amend public statements to be in line with government policy and 69 per cent believed dissenting organisations risked having their funding cut.

Co-author Dr Andrea Carson said the finding of self-silencing was a concern because it hindered “a free and fair Australian democracy”.

“Civil voices play an important role in holding power to account in a democratic society such as Australia by speaking for the disadvantaged who may lack the capacity to be heard,” Carson said.

“This research is important because it documents some of the constraints on civil voices. It also shows that over time, since the last comprehensive survey, public advocacy has been impacted by real and perceived constraints on speaking out.

“Some of the NGOs that we surveyed were explicit in saying that they felt constrained to say what they really believed because they feared retribution in the form of cuts to public funding. In other cases, advocacy occurs but it is weighed up against the costs of speaking out.”

Carson said the report also showed Australian politicians were “not getting to hear from voices that matter in the community as much as they should” when making important public policy decisions.

“It also means that sections of the community with more power such as the corporate sector are perceived as having more access and influence on political decision-making,” she said.

Emily Howie, a director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, said the report demonstrated the “alarming extent” to which government action was undermining healthy public discussion, debate and democracy in Australia.

“Community organisations have enormous expertise to contribute, drawn from the work they do, whether it’s running a homeless shelter or protecting the environment. When you sideline the not-for-profit sector from public discussion, you silence the voices of the most marginalised people, undermine policy making and, ultimately, diminish our democracy,” Howie said.

“Democracy thrives when public policy and debates are informed by a range of voices. Yet governments across Australia, to protect themselves and vested corporate interests from criticism, are using financial levers to make it harder for community organisations to speak up for the groups and interests they were formed to represent. Instead of shutting down healthy debate, the government should be embracing and facilitating the sharing of ideas.”

The report comes a week after the government introduced new foreign donations laws that the sector has said would severely damage its advocacy.

Howie said that the new law could have “absurd consequences”, silencing health charities from speaking out on vaccination or preventing green groups from defending the environment.

“Unfortunately, this announcement is consistent with a broader, undemocratic trend of government attempting to silence the not-for-profit sector, through gags in funding agreements and threats to hamstring advocacy groups’ ability to fundraise. All governments find criticism of them inconvenient or uncomfortable, but that’s part and parcel of a good democracy,” she said.

Speaking to Pro Bono News ahead of the launch of Civil Voices, the former president of the Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs said challenging the rights of people to speak up was “enormously damaging”.

“The people at the coal face, on the ground, in the soup kitchens, on the street providing people with homes, helping those with mental illness get proper resources, these charities know more about what is actually happening and they look into the eyes of the people who are being so disadvantaged and in many cases abused, they know more than anyone else and if we silence that voice, or have a chilling effect on their ability to speak up, then I think we are damaging the ability to ensure that the general public is better educated about these situations,” Triggs said.

Pro Bono Australia founder Karen Mahlab AM said she hoped Civil Voices would stimulate conversation and reinforce the importance of charities’ rights to advocate.

“We were pleased to work with Human Rights Law Centre for this research which we think is of vital importance to the social sector, and we hope it stimulates conversation,” Mahlab said.

“Australian not for profits are protected in law as having the right to advocate; they should not be self-silencing.

“Civil society would be far poorer without the voice of those working on the frontline.”

The report is available online at

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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