JOAN STAPLES. Civil Society Highs and Lows

Nov 1, 2017

Australian civil society has seen the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) win the Nobel Peace Prize, the High Court uphold Bob Brown’s challenge to Tasmanian protest laws, and the Coalition extend its attacks on NGO advocacy, targeting GetUp.


Pride and astonishment continue around local NGO circles, as the reality registers that well-known Australian ICAN activists have received the Nobel Peace Prize.  The role of local ICAN people in creating the organisation, extending its reach and securing the international Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons last July is truly remarkable.  Yet it is also typical of much good work taking place in Australian civil society.  Strategic experience saw the local activists devise a strategy based on focusing on the non-nuclear states, not on confronting existing nuclear nations.  They helped establish 468 ICAN groups worldwide, which coordinated in persuading 122 nations sign the Treaty last July.  The rationale is similar to conventions banning chemical weapons, biological weapons, cluster bombs and landmines, which saw international non-participant parties successfully pressure participant states to stop the production of these weapons.  The next step for Australian ICAN is to have Australia pull back from its proactive, outspoken opposition to the new Treaty and instead support and sign it.

High Court and Protest Laws

The High Court decision of 18 October was decisive in throwing out the Tasmanian Workplace (Protection from Protesters) Act 2014. The Act criminalised protest that interfered with ‘business activity’, including forestry and other industrial activities on public or private land. The judges ruled 6 to 1 that the way the Act sought to criminalise protesters was disproportionate and used unnecessary provisions.  However, the Court did not strengthen constitutional guarantees about protest.  Bob Brown and Jessica Hoyt, who brought the action, were overjoyed to have the Tasmanian Act ruled unconstitutional. However, Brown has warned other states that the decision is a ‘line in the sand’ and will be ‘a benchmark for more challenges’ if other states try to pass similar legislation.

Unfortunately, NSW already has such legislation and 3 Hunter River coal activists face up to 14 years jail for blocking a road and hindering equipment belonging to Wilpinjong Mine. The NSW Attorney General is reportedly seeking advice from his Solicitor-General as a result of the High Court decision.  Brown points out that opposition to coal mining, such as the national anti-Adani mine protests, is part of increasing public unrest over governmental favours to the fossil fuel industry.  Such protests can be expected to continue.

GetUp Targeted by AEC

The hard men of the Coalition right are continuing a vendetta against GetUp using various means.  The Australian Election Commission has requested GetUp to provide information to it on the basis that GetUp is ‘an associated entity’ – that is a group controlled by a political party or operating to a significant extent for the benefit of a political party.  GetUp is refusing to co-operate, arguing that it is an independent advocacy organisation, set up to hold powerbrokers to account and its activities are part of normal democratic advocacy.  The request continues the Coalition’s use of federal organisations/departments to target NGOs.  The ATO was used to audit the Wilderness Society’s finances 5 times under the Howard government – unsuccessfully, as no impropriety was found.  GetUp has already been cleared after it faced two AEC reviews as to its independence from political parties.

On Wednesday, GetUp’s name appeared in reports about police raids on the offices of the Australian Workers’ Union.  Reportedly, evidence is being sought of a donation to GetUp 12 years ago by the Union without AWU executive approval.  The raids appear aimed at the Union and Bill Shorten, but GetUp fears they may be next to experience a police raid. They have issued a request to their supporters for financial support and are ready to defend the organisation and its democratic role in any court battle.  I was consulted by those who set up GetUp over 12 years ago.  In its early years, it attempted to straddle progressive politics, even having Board members with Liberal Party links.  GetUp has not moved to take on more radical policies.  Rather the increasing power of extreme conservatives in the Liberal Party, such as Eric Abetz, has seen the Party move to the right and take on aggressive campaigns against progressive organisations.  Certainly the heat of the conflict has escalated notably, as NGOs struggle with what they see as a degrading of democratic practice.  Attacks such as GetUp is experiencing can tie up an organisation’s resources, both financial and intellectual, and weaken their core advocacy/democratic role.  This may be part of the motivation.

More Storm Clouds

More storm clouds are also brewing for civil society as the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters prepares to report.  Stay tuned as to whether the Committee follows through with proposals ban international philanthropy to local organisations – a proposal of concern to Australian Council for International Development, Philanthropy Australia and the Community Council of Australia.

Dr Joan Staples was the ACF National Liaison Officer during the Hawke Government and is currently an Associate in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University.




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