JOAN STAPLES. NGOs and a clash of world views

Jun 22, 2017

Coalition Governments have been trying to stop NGO advocacy for 20 years.  Current attacks on the sector are a clash between a neoliberal old world order dominated by fossil fuels and a world view based on sustainability and equity.  Unfortunately, in the process our democratic freedoms are being trampled.

In 1991, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Community Affairs reported on NGO advocacy saying,

An integral part of the consultative and lobbying role of these organisations is to disagree with government policy where this is necessary in order to represent the interests of their constituencies.

We are now a long way from that view of our democracy!

Coalition Governments have been trying to stop NGO advocacy for 20 years.  John Howard said he would change the country and he did.  His attacks on ‘special interests’, ‘elites’, and ‘single issue groups’ aimed to replace Australia’s pluralist democracy with a view that NGOs interfered with the neoliberal ‘market’.   Over two decades as neoliberalism has morphed into an ideology, these attacks have become more strident, with noticeable targeting of environmental NGOs.  They have been documented by many academics.

Last week, a Coalition Government again introduced proposals that would limit NGO advocacy, particularly environmental advocacy.  A discussion paper was released of ‘reform opportunities’ for NGOs having tax deductible gift recipient status.  It expresses concern that the advocacy of NGOs, particularly environmental NGOs, ‘may be out of step with the expectations of the broader community’. It proposes that environmental NGOs should be required to devote half their annual expenditure on practical works such as planting trees, rather than advocacy, and it proposes a range of regulatory changes, which would be attractive to a repressive government wanting to stop debate.  Responses are required by 14 July, and once again NGOs will have to give time and effort in defence of free speech.

Human Rights Commissioner, Gillian Triggs, has deplored the fact that the right to advocate and freedom of speech are under attack from federal and state governments.  She recently called it an ‘ideological assault’ and documented some of the ways that civil society was being muzzled by federal and state governments.  The UN rapporteur, Michael Forst, specialising in the rights of civil society, visited Australia last year.  He concluded that Australian governments have effectively gagged civil society with secrecy laws, funding cuts and restrictive contracts.

Many attacks on NGOs have been orchestrated by the Murdoch press.  Recently, GetUp has been targeted mercilessly. GetUp and the Tax Justice Network have contracted the independent journalist, Michael West, to investigate the financial statements of 20 multinational companies and their tax affairs.  Both the Australian and the Daily Telegraph have run stories portraying the relationship as somehow corrupt. Peta Credlin has likened them to a political party because of the pressure they have been exerting on Peter Dutton in his electorate on refugees and the citizenship test.  Because they targeted conservatives at the last federal election, attempts are being made to limit NGO advocacy during elections.  GetUp has three areas of activity- social justice, social fairness, and environmental sustainability.  Importantly, it is the most active Australian NGO that specifically talks in terms of assaults on our democracy and puts together campaigns to defend our democratic rights.

NGOs have been proactive in defending the right to advocate.  Australia does not have a bill of rights and relies on an implied right of freedom of speech in the Constitution.  A David and Goliath case in 2010 against the ATO saw the High Court affirm that the tiny NGO, AidWatch, was not disqualified from charitable status by its public advocacy. Currently, Bob Brown is challenging Tasmanian anti-protest laws in the High Court.  The laws prohibit protesters from ‘preventing, hindering or obstructing’ businesses, even in public areas such as state forests.  Brown and his fellow litigant are arguing that the ‘true purpose’ of the laws is not to protect businesses but to stop political communication such as environmental campaigns.  In NSW, similar legislation now operates and WA has been proposing to follow suit.  Common to these anti-protest laws are harsher penalties, excessive police powers and the prioritisation of business interests, particularly mining and forestry operations.

The major parties and particularly the Coalition have become captive to corporate, and particularly mining interests.  As climate change begins to bite, the old fossil fuel interests are digging in for a fight, using every ounce of influence in government to continue to extract fossil fuel as long as possible.  The Treasurer’s lump of coal in parliament prompted social media to react with the caption, ‘And now a word from our sponsors!’.  It was a satirical response, not just to the industry’s political donations, but to the ‘revolving door’, which sees former Coalition ministers like Ian Macfarlane going into lucrative mining industry lobbying positions.  The practice is not limited to former ministers lobbying for the industry, but also goes the other way, with former ministerial advisers and staff of some regulators coming from the mining industry.

Dr Joan Staples is an Associate at the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University




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