Silencing Australian Civil Society: the Howard Legacy and the Abbott Government's Remaking of Australian Democracy

Cassandra Star

Associate Professor, College of Business, Government and Law, Flinders University

Civil society in Australia faces a Coalition government with ideas about public debate, civil society and democracy that appear at odds with a stated commitment to liberalism. While the Howard government demonstrated a weakening support for civil society organisations and attempted to de-legitimate the role of NGOs in the public sphere, the government of the Abbott era moved beyond this to undermine key elements of the Australian. These suggest an attempt to re-make the relationship between the government, the public and civil society.


Abbott’s Environmental Attacks – a New Era?


Attempts to dismantle NGOs and civil society

There was a continuation of the use of the silencing tools of the Howard era including Third Way service provision and contracts that gag organisations in Abbott’s approach. Limitation of funding for civil society is also present. However, the new agenda went beyond the silencing of dissent to the dismantling of civil society.


In the environmental non-government organisation (ENGO) arena, public attack can be observed in the House of Representatives Committee Inquiry into the Administration and Transparency of the Register of Environmental Organisations which was initiated to review the tax deductibility status of Australian ENGOs. Decisions made in the Howard era removed the majority of funding from ENGOs, resulting in a significantly smaller and under-resourced sector. The Abbott government in the 2014 budget cut the Grants to Voluntary Environment, Sustainability and Heritage Organisations, impacting up to 150 groups. Removing tax deductibility status diminished the future viability of these groups. The inquiry proceeded hand in hand with a motion by the Federal Council of the Liberal Party to strip ENGOs of the same rights permitted to other charities, including tax-deductible donations. In addition, the Re:Think, Better Tax System Best Australia white paper (Government of Australia 2015) also flagged a review of the Not For Profit sector’s tax deductibility status. These attacks clearly attempt to continue the Howard era rhetoric that ENGOs, and thus by extension other NGOs, are illegitimate if they have a ‘political’ or advocacy purpose, rather than a service-delivery purpose. This is despite the 2010 High Court ruling that groups with tax-deductible status have the right to participate in political debate and advocacy on issues ‘indispensable’ for ‘representative and responsible government’.


The second prong in this attack was to introduce legal constraints on advocacy and activism. These constraints have included gag clauses applied to community legal centres (Patty 2013) and other service delivery organisations that receive government funding. Attempts were also made to remove exemptions from section 45DD of the Consumers and Competition Act for ENGOs utilising boycotts against commercial organisations (Taylor 2014). The combined impact of these changes would remove legal protections or activate penalties for NGOs carrying out their public democratic purpose. In addition, other Liberal Party governments have made proposals to de-legitimate public protest, including the drafting of anti-protest laws in Western Australia (O’Connor 2015) and in Tasmania (Richards 2014). Collectively, these actions attempt to shrink, de-legitimise and criminalise the advocacy and democratic purposes of ENGOs and other civil society organisations.


Silence and replace independent voices

There were attempts to de-fund, restrain and silence other independent voices, while installing voices sympathetic to the government’s politics.


The public service, providers of independent advice and expertise to Australian governments and the public is a key area that suffered under the Abbott government. While the Howard government removed 30,000 jobs from the public service, an additional 15,000 jobs were shed in the relatively short Abbott era (Mannheim 2015). These changes remove a significant source and space for the exercise of independent voices in our democracy.


The public service sustained significant political attack under Abbott. These attacks were waged on individuals and on organisations. At the individual level, new guidelines were introduced to public servants regarding social media activities. Employees were encouraged to report colleagues for political or critical comments, even when these were made online anonymously and in a personal capacity (Maiden 2014). For an example of the actions against ‘politically inconvenient’ organisations one only has to look as far as the Bureau of Meteorology. After The Australian newspaper published stories that questioned the Bureau’s climate data, Abbott’s hand-picked climate-denier business adviser[i] called for a review of the Bureau. Prime Minister Abbott’s Department investigated Bureau of Meteorology climate records.


Climate expertise was also targeted for cuts elsewhere. In the 2014 budget, the CSIRO faced a $140m cut from a $733m budget (Koelma 2014), which resulted in job losses of approximately 500 (Duffy 2014), despite already having lost 489 staff to previous funding cuts. In tandem with these changes, the government also set about dismantling the Climate Commission. The Commission was set up in 2011 as an independent but government-funded body by the Gillard government to communicate reliable and authoritative information about climate change to the public. At the same time, the government also began work to dismantle the Climate Change Authority (Kenny 2013).


The Abbott government also specifically sought to fund and legitimise those voices in support of its own position. At a pre-Paris UNFCCC conference briefing on climate issues by leading scientists provided to the Coalition’s backbench committee of environment, the Coalition invited prominent Australian climate denialists to present their views for ‘balance’ (Readfearn 2015). Another example is the government’s repeated attempts in 2014 and 2015 to secure and fund a university-based research centre around Dr Bjorn Lomborg whose position on climate change aligned with the government’s resistance to climate action. A vigorous public campaign against this continued until October 2015 when the Turnbull government dropped the proposal[ii].


Reducing access to the judicial system

A logical next step from the attempts to criminalise advocacy and activism was the government’s moves to deny activists and organisations legal protections and representation.

Funding cuts of more than 20% were made to prominent legal supports including the Aboriginal Legal Service, the Legal Aid Commission and Community Legal Centres (ABC News 2015). In addition, the remaining funding has contractual clauses attached that prevent any commentary on law reform or advocacy on the part of recipients (Seccombe 2014). Specifically in the environmental arena, the Abbott government targeted the Environmental Defenders Offices (EDOs). From 1 July 2014, the EDO received no government funding after a cut of $10m in December 2013, meaning up to a 50% loss of budget and closures of EDO offices (Arup 2013). The EDO provides support for ENGO challenges to government and corporate actors.


It is clear that the Abbott government – while incorporating some similar approaches to the Howard government in its ‘silencing of dissent’ – worked on a substantively expanded agenda. These moves were a concerted campaign by the Abbott government to compromise the fabric of Australian democracy through a systematic change to the relationship between the government, civil society and the public service – effectively undermining independent, expert oversight of its activities.

[i] Maurice Newman refers to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as “an anthropogenic warming propagandist” (Parkinson 2014).

[ii] For a detailed account of the Lomborg controversy, see the work of David Holmes (2015).

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