Taming civil society: the nation state fights back

We run a lot of posts on PTP that cover the challenges or problems with particular policies or courses of action taken by government. Such is the nature of working in social policy - we are often wanting to improve what is currently in place. Today's post is a little different. Paul Ronalds from Save the Children tells a positive story of policy change, where the community sector fought back and won. Enjoy!

Dom Camera served as Roman Catholic Archbishop of Recife during Brazil’s military dictatorship. During his tenure, his tireless work with Brazil’s urban poor earned him the nickname 'Bishop of the slums'.

However, he was also an outspoken critic of the violence used by the regime to maintain power and advocated strongly for policies that would reduce inequality.

This did not endear him to Brazil’s rulers.

He famously said “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

Discrediting those who question how the state behaves towards people without power is a tried and true technique to deflect criticism. Its used by governments around the world, including, from time to time, our own Australian Government.

In October last year, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph under the heading ‘Truth Overboard’ reported on a leaked ‘intelligence report’ that claimed Save the Children staff were coaching asylum seekers to self-harm and fabricating stories of abuse.

At the same time, the Department of Immigration instructed Save the Children to remove 10 of its staff from Nauru.

The then Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, called a press conference to confirm that 10 of our staff would be taken off the island and to announce an investigation into operations on the Island.

While providing welfare and education services on Nauru, Save the Children had remained a staunch critic of the government’s policy of compulsory detention of children and their families.

The Government’s own report later completely exonerated Save the Children’s staff but the message had been sent. Criticise the government’s policies and we will seek to discredit you.

When we commenced operations on Nauru we made it very clear to the then immigration minister Tony Burke that we reserved the right to continue to speak out about a policy that was in breach of international obligations and doing enormous harm to children and their families.

Of course, we expected to be subject to appropriate confidentiality clauses. And we have always insisted that our staff adhere to the confidentiality obligations in their contracts.

However, increasingly the Australian Government sought to impose restrictions on our ability to speak publically on policy issues affecting children, in a number of ways.

The use of publicity and media clauses like that in Transfield’s current contract with the Department (which is available online) was one way.

Through the middle of 2014, the Immigration Department sought to insert similar clauses into our contract. We negotiated heavily on these clauses to ensure we retained the right to advocate and defend our reputation.

On a number of occasions, I felt it necessary to remind the public servants we were dealing with that the Freedom to Advocate Act gave Save the Children a right to advocate.

At the same time as we were negotiating on the ‘publicity and media’ clause, we were also negotiating a performance bond. In my time as a senior public servant with specific responsibility for the not-for-profit sector, I had not heard of a government department seeking such a pre-payment from a charity.

Again the message was clear. Speak our publically and there will be very significant financial consequences.

More recently, the introduction of the Australia Border Force Act added a range of secrecy provisions together with a penalty of up to two years in jail, that applied to Save the Children and its staff working on Nauru.

Of course, refugee policy is not the only area where the government has sought to neuter its civil society critics.

The government has instituted a Parliamentary inquiry into the tax deductibility of environmental NGOs. Some Government MPs are agitating for a cull of the 600-strong register of environmental organisations.

Environmental groups have been vocal critics of the government’s lack of action on climate change and its ongoing support for fossil fuels.

Changes to government funding are also used to silence critics.

Government funding of many peak bodies was reduced or removed entirely in 2014, interpreted by many in the NGO sector as a way to reduce non-profits’ advocacy work and as a warning about speaking out about Government policy.

Attorney General George Brandis went further, requesting the Australia Council to find a formula for deciding when public funding will be withdrawn because private sponsorship has been “unreasonably” rejected. This followed the decision of an arts festival to reject funding from an Australian trust associated with a corporation engaged in providing services as part of the Government’s offshore asylum seeker detention centres.

Unfortunately, such actions are part of a broader trend of governments seeking to limit the influence and role of civil society around the world.

From Africa to Asia, the licenses of tens of thousands of NGOs have been revoked and a barrage of new regulations placed on their operations.

Obviously, NGOs need to operate according to the laws of the country and to be fully transparent and accountable for their activities.

However, it is clear that some of these regulations are designed to control NGO activities and discourage them from speaking out in relation to human rights abuse or the treatment of the marginalised.

How should NGOs like Save the Children respond?

First of all, we need to be much more explicit about the distinct contribution that civil society makes to the societies in which we operate.

In addition to the direct service delivery work we do, NGOs are an important source of new ideas, both through their own work and by promoting the best ideas and practice of others.

Non-profits enhance democracy by encouraging political participation, especially among vulnerable and marginalised groups. They can provide a check on the power of government and help to keep it accountable to citizens.

They help to disseminate information and to educate citizens.

They often promote tolerance, moderation, compromise and respect for opposing points of view. Without this commitment to pluralism, democracy is unsustainable.

NGOs help to build social capital in a community and enhance social cohesion and resilience.

Secondly, we need to steadfastly defend our right to participate in policy debates.

NGOs participation in policy debates enhances democracy. Debate is fundamental to a well-functioning democracy and to the formulation of good policy.

Of course, NGOs must ensure that they are independent of any particular political party and they must be particularly careful when advocating policies that may give rise to a perceived conflict of interest.

A degree of pragmatism is also important.

No government of any stripe welcomes criticism of its policies and political leaders can, despite their public profile, be particularly sensitive. Public and private advocacy should also always be respectful in tone and rigorously supported by evidence.

But a strong democracy depends on a strong civil society that is free to speak out.

The new Prime Minister has declared that his government will be a “thoroughly liberal government committed to freedom”. We must hold him to this promise.