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A string of government policies and practices has created a culture in which charities in Australia are “self-silencing” for fear of risking their financial security or attracting political retribution, according to a major report.

Civil Voices, an initiative by Pro Bono Australia in partnership with the Human Rights Law Centre, has found Australian not-for-profit organisations are treading carefully in their advocacy work. This trend threatens to silence a sector that has much to contribute to Australian public debate and policy making.

The research, carried out by academics at the University of Melbourne, set out to examine how public debate and advocacy had evolved over a decade and whether the perceptions of non-government organisations of their capacity to participate in public debate had changed.

A total of 1,462 people responded to the survey (30 per cent of whom were not-for-profit CEOs).

Sarah Maddison, report co-author and University of Melbourne associate professor, said the main finding was “fairly insidious”.

“We’ve moved away from the really overtly hostile period of governance of the civil society sector. Instead what we are seeing is that the sector itself has taken on board some of those concerns into a mode of operation that we’re calling ‘self-silencing’,” Maddison said.

“Our once vocal, sometimes strident, advocacy sector, bringing the voice and the experience of Australia’s most marginalised communities to the fore and helping government make better policy has been effectively silenced both by governments and now by itself.”

In 2004 The Australia Institute produced the report Silencing Dissent: Non-government organisations and Australian democracy. This report detailed the growing fears across the NGO sector concerning civil society’s right to advocate in the public policy domains of most concern to them, and more broadly about their changing role in the democratic process. Civil Voices built on this report and found the threat to advocacy remains a serious concern.

Civil Voices found, 13 years on, that debate was being stifled in Australia on a number of fronts, and when combined together these presented a powerful picture of a sector that is losing its voice.

“If we think about the lack of media resources, in a crowded and noisy media environment, in which one in five organisations are still actively silenced by funding agreements, and 12 per cent by pressure from a board or management, we get a sense of the complex environment in which the sector is operating and their perceived need to carefully manage the risks associated with advocacy work,” Maddison said.

“The data clearly suggest that public debate is further limited through self-censorship because of implied repercussions (from within or outside the organisation) stemming from fears of government funding cuts or loss of DGR status.”

Dr Andrea Carson, co-author of Civil Voices, said the finding of self-silencing was a concern because it hindered “a free and fair Australian democracy”.

“Some of the NGOs that we surveyed were explicit in saying that they felt constrained to say what they really believed because they feared retribution in the form of cuts to public funding. In other cases, advocacy occurs but it is weighed up against the costs of speaking out,” Carson said.

“The report shows that Australian politicians are not getting to hear from voices that matter in the community as much as they should when they make important public policy decisions. It also means that sections of the community with more power such as the corporate sector are perceived as having more access and influence on political decision-making.”

Emily Howie, a director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, said that the report demonstrated the alarming extent to which government action was undermining healthy public discussion debate and democracy in Australia.

“Community organisations have enormous expertise to contribute, drawn from the work they do, whether it’s running a homeless shelter or protecting the environment. When you sideline the not-for-profit sector from public discussion, you silence the voices of the most marginalised people, undermine policy making and, ultimately, diminish our democracy,” Howie said.

“Democracy thrives when public policy and debates are informed by a range of voices. Yet governments across Australia, to protect themselves and vested corporate interests from criticism, are using financial levers to make it harder for community organisations to speak up for the groups and interests they were formed to represent. Instead of shutting down healthy debate, the government should be embracing and facilitating the sharing of ideas.”

Just last week the government introduced new laws that target the advocacy work of not-for-profit organisations, including charities, by banning international donations for advocacy deemed “political”.

Howie said that the new law could have absurd consequences: silencing health charities from speaking out on vaccination or preventing green groups from defending the environment.

“Unfortunately, this announcement is consistent with a broader, undemocratic trend of government attempting to silence the not-for-profit sector, through gags in funding agreements and threats to hamstring advocacy groups’ ability to fundraise. All governments find criticism of them inconvenient or uncomfortable, but that’s part and parcel of a good democracy,” she said.

Karen Mahlab AM, Pro Bono Australia founder, said she hoped Civil Voices would stimulate conversation.

“Pro Bono Australia sits at the nexus between media and civil society which makes us uniquely placed to catalyse this important research piece,” Mahlab said.

“By reaching out to our readers, most of whom are senior executives in not-for-profit organisations, we have been able to provide a robust evidence base to underscore significant concerns over the comfort of not for profits to advocate.

“We were pleased to work with Human Rights Law Centre for this research which we think is of vital importance to the social sector, and we hope it stimulates conversation. Australian not for profits are protected in law as having the right to advocate; they should not be self-silencing. Civil society would be far poorer without the voice of those working on the frontline.”

The report is available online at civilvoices.com.au

Key Findings:

  • The state of debate in Australian democracy remains poor.
  • 65 per cent of state-based NGOs feel restricted in what they can say publicly by funding agreements compared to 42 per cent of national organisations.
  • 83 per cent of respondents have DGR status, and regard it as essential to their financial well-being.
  • 40 per cent directly link the airing of dissenting viewpoints as a threat to their DGR status.
  • 92 per cent of NGOs believe that “economic power and strong vested interests are major drivers of government policy”.
  • 53 per cent believe NGOs are pressured to amend public statements to be in line with government policy.
  • 69 per cent of organisations believe dissenting organisations risk having their funding cut.
  • 58 per cent believe that those who dissent from current government policy are not valued as part of a robust democracy.
  • Almost two thirds of respondents stated it was easier to be heard in the past five years than now.
  • 89 per cent of organisations used social media to “get their message heard” as part of their communications strategy - Facebook was the most used platform (79 per cent of respondents).
  • The most significant barrier to being heard was an organisation’s “lack of media liaison resources” (38 per cent) followed by a perception that mainstream media (35 per cent) and government were not interested (36 per cent).
  • Three quarters of respondents believe that philanthropists would rather fund service delivery over advocacy activities by NGOs.

Related items:

Three reasons Australians should be concerned that NGOs’ voices are not being heard – The Conversation

The silence of the not-for-profit sector - Pursuit by The University of Melbourne

Charities self-censoring due to fear of political retribution: research – ABC PMCharities self-censoring due to fear of political retribution: research – ABC PM

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