Australian governments must act now to safeguard and encourage vibrant debate on matters of public interest, 15 non-government organisations have said in a new report to be released today.
At the #Progress2017 conference in Melbourne, Professor Gillian Triggs, President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, will launch Defending Democracy, a new Human Rights Law Centre report that highlights the urgent need to safeguard independent civil society voices.
Emily Howie, a Director of Legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, said that there is a clear and worrying trend of Australian governments seeking to restrict the free speech of not-for-profit organisations, through practices such as gag clauses in funding agreements and threats to hamstring advocacy groups’ ability to fundraise.
“A thriving democracy needs an informed public debate with a range of voices. However, governments are making it clear to charities that work with families and communities doing it tough, that if they speak out about government policy, their ongoing funding will be put in jeopardy,” said Ms Howie
Environmental organisations have fought to save some of Australia’s most loved places, from the Franklin River to the Barrier Reef, but the Australian Government has not ruled out changes to tax regulations that will restrict the ability of environmental organisations to fundraise and to challenge projects that damage the environment.
“All governments find criticism inconvenient or uncomfortable, but that’s part and parcel of a good democracy. Instead of shutting down debate, governments should be enabling healthy, robust discussion,” said Ms Howie.
The report also considers recent moves to ban foreign funding to NGOs and to limit NGO engagement in election activity.
The report contains ten recommendations for law, policy and practical reform.
The report is endorsed by 15 of Australia’s best known NGOs including Australian Progress, Pro Bono Australia, Oxfam, ACOSS, the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, the Australian Conservation Foundation, Choice, Community Council for Australia, ActionAid, GetUp!, the Wilderness Society, the National Association of Community Legal Centres, Community Legal Centres NSW, Justice Connect and the Reichstein Foundation.
Further quotes about the report:
Professor Gillian Triggs, President of the Australian Human Rights Commission:
“This timely Report suggests valuable initiatives to protect the community’s right to advocate for the environment and human rights.”
Helen Szoke, CEO of Oxfam Australia:
“As global inequality increases, it’s ever more vital that governments act to protect spaces for people’s voices to be heard. The Australian Government could be leading the charge, but as this report shows, urgent action is needed if Australia is to buck the global trend towards the stifling of public debate.”
Cassandra Goldie, CEO of ACOSS:
“A healthy and balanced Australia is about allowing everyone the dignity of having their voices heard and for government to respect and support their participation. We must protect civil society’s participation and engagement in our democracy or risk our democracy being eroded by only those with wealth and power being able to influence it.”
Alan Kirkland, CEO of CHOICE:
“Governments should recognise the crucial role of consumer organisations in identifying where the law is failing to adequately protect consumers. Far from discouraging advocacy, they should encouraging organisations to speak out.”
Paul Oosting, National Director, GetUp
“Strong, fearless advocacy from right across civil society has made Australia a better place in countless ways. We need to defend that legacy, and defend all forms of civil society advocacy from political attacks.”
Download a copy of the report here: Defending Democracy