NEWS The Abbott government is using tightened conditions in community funding agreements to silence its critics. In the revised service agreements, under which the federal government provides funding to about 140 community legal centres around Australia, the new conditions specifically state that organisations cannot use Commonwealth money for any activity directed towards law reform or advocacy. These agreements came into effect on 1 July 2014.
In an article published in today’s The Saturday Paper, Mike Seccombe writes that “the Abbott government is following the course set by the Howard government, which was dogged in its efforts to ensure the non-profit sector was prevented from voicing unwelcome opinions. Contracts with community sector organisations routinely included gag clauses and reserved the right to censor public statements before they were released.”
The previous agreements introduced under the Labor government intended to reverse a trend started under the Howard government, included a clause that stated: “The Commonwealth is committed to ensuring that its agreements do not contain provisions that could be used to stifle legitimate debate or prevent organisations engaging in advocacy activities.”
It went on to state that “no right or obligation arising under this Agreement will be read or understood by the Commonwealth as limiting the Organisation’s right to enter into public debate or criticism of the Commonwealth, its agencies, employees, servants or agents.” It also stipulated that there was no obligation to obtain any advance approval from the government before going public with any criticism.
But when the Abbott government’s latest revised agreements were forwarded to the organisations in mid-June, all of that was gone. Under the new agreements, organisations are specifically precluded from using Commonwealth funds for any activity directed towards law reform or advocacy.
The Productivity Commission, in its recent interim Access to Justice report, found advocacy was actually an efficient use of resources because it addressed systemic issues rather than just individual cases. Thus “by clarifying the law it can also benefit the community more broadly”.
Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, QC, agrees. “CLCs and legal aid commissions are best placed, from their work, to observe when reform might aid not just their immediate clients, but thousands of others in the community.”
Over the years so many worthwhile reforms, from tenancy laws to domestic violence laws, have been driven by community legal organisations.
A government agenda to control and silence civil society
“What we are seeing,” says David Ritter, the chief executive of Greenpeace Australia, “is a government pursuing everything it can think of in an agenda to control and silence civil society. And that should be of concern to all Australians.”
He refers to the Competition Policy Review, now being headed by former businessman Maurice Newman, not a noted friend of the environment.
A number of members want to change the secondary boycott provisions of the competition and consumer act, which currently exempt actions by consumer and environment groups.
If that were to happen, organisations would be breaking the law if they advocated that consumers avoid using certain products. They could not advocate boycotts, for example, of unsustainable fisheries, palm oil products from plantations where rainforest had been knocked down, or paper products produced from old-growth forests.
The review is due to be complete before the end of the year.
Would the government go so far as to actually criminalise advocacy? A broad coalition of environment, welfare and other groups is taking the threat very seriously and is now lobbying furiously.
Yet not only are these organisations – community legal centres, environmental defenders and other non-profits – often the most publicly trusted critics of government policy, they are frequently sought out by government for their expertise.
“I can’t tell you how often governments have come to us over the years seeking our involvement in policy work, or advice on improving their practices,” says Michael Smith. “Now, we’re not supposed to be having those conversations.”
Not under this government. No criticism allowed.
See Mike Seccombe’s full article: Brandis ties NGO funding to non-advocacy (The Saturday Paper, 26 July 2014)