Australian civil society is again facing attacks from government and conservative think tanks seeking to silence and weaken community voices. The Labor years of 2007-2013 saw a break from the attempted silencing of the Howard decade, but there is now a new push, that aims to detract from the legitimacy of NGOs and to deny the valuable role their advocacy plays in our democracy. The detail of the new push has been documented recently. It is not a coincidence that at the same time there are new younger voices in an energised environment movement. Many new groups of younger activists are fighting for their future by challenging coal and gas corporations as climate change looms.
Government actions that are concerning and distracting civil society at present include:
- Almost 600 environmental groups that hold tax-deductibility status in Australia are being scrutinised by a House of Representatives Inquiry. Government MPs have apparently identified up to 150 groups they wish to strike off the list. Other community groups having the same tax deductibility have not been included. There have been suggestions that those most directly challenging the fossil fuel industry are being targeted by this Inquiry.
- The federal government White Paper on tax called, Re:Think, has a chapter on the NGO sector. It poses questions for discussion that ignore the advocacy role of developing good policy from community input. Instead, it posits NGOs as competing with the for-profit sector and asks if they have a ‘competitive advantage’.
- Various state governments have proposed, or are proposing, legislation that would restrict the ability of groups to use public forms of non-violent protest.
These attacks have been documented a number of times and in fact have been written about extensively. However, it is worth pausing and setting out the importance of this public advocacy to our society.
The value of NGOs to our public sphere is multi-faceted.
- NGOs respond to policy and they develop alternative proposals. This input is vital to good policy-making by both government and business. Community people on the ground can see and predict the effect of policies in a practical and effective way, making improved outcomes possible for all.
- NGOs are uniquely placed to support policy that looks to long term goals or that affects the future. In contrast, governments react to the short electoral cycle, asking ‘how will it affect our chance of re-election?’, and businesses have a legal responsibility to ask ‘how will it affect our bottom line’?, but it is a special quality of the NGO sector that it has the flexibility to include the long-term in its policy interests and in its desired outcomes. Responding to the crisis of climate change is the most obvious example where a response relevant to the future is competing with party electoral aims and the business bottom line of fossil fuel companies.
- Another most important role is to provide a balance to the views of powerful, organised, economic interests. There is a large imbalance between the power of vested interests and that of the community. On the occasions when government and business work together, the power imbalance is even greater, and NGOs are vital.
- NGOs have an accountability function. They inform the community on the behaviour of governments and businesses and call them to account. NGOs can claim legitimacy for this role if their roots are in the community and they are informed by the practical impact of policy on themselves or their members. When this is the case, NGOs are uniquely placed to respond to (a) the impact of government and business policies, (b) the impact of lack of policy, (c) failure to implement promises, (d) the unintended consequences of policy and (e) the existence of unethical or corrupt behaviour.
- NGOs can show the amount of public support or opposition there is for any policy. It is a creative challenge for NGOs to find new ways to demonstrate this. Rallies, public meetings, letterwriting, petitions etc. are traditional means and the internet has thrown up many new methods.
- NGOs are better than individuals trying to act on issues alone, because by pooling financial and intellectual resources they improve the quality of their contribution to public debate. ‘Two heads are better than one’ and ‘many hands make light work’.
- NGOs can improve equity in our society by providing a ‘voice’ for marginalised and disadvantaged individuals and groups.
- Regional and country NGOs are important for providing information to make policy specifically relevant to different geographical areas. The same is true for special interest groups, such as the disabled, women, etc. Policy affecting any regional or special interest group is improved with their input, making it better policy for all.
- Unlike the public service or government or large businesses, the flexibility of the NGO sector means it can respond quickly to new political situations. New organisations frequently spring up in response to need or policy proposals. NGO flexibility can be seen as part of the variety, dynamism and vitality of the community from which NGOs come. The flexibility can also reflect different political and cultural ways of talking about the same issue and can tap into different parts of society.
It is exactly 20 years since John Howard first spoke of NGOs as part of the economic market, rather than as part of our democratic structure and our public sphere. The Howard years were a confusing period for NGOs. Practical actions of feeding the homeless or planting trees were commended in the name of smaller government, but advocacy on behalf of the homeless or the environment were discouraged by a number of means. Now neoliberal warriors in the Abbott government are opening up new fronts.
The Australian community has heard two decades of economic language measuring the worth of NGOs as economic entities. This has resulted in a devaluing of NGO contributions and the devaluing of a healthy contest of ideas. It is time to reassert the positives of an engagement with the community.