One of the key steps in the autocrats’ playbook is to suffocate civil society. From Venezuela to Belarus, elected leaders who have overseen a democratic decline have harassed volunteers, shut down community groups, and curtailed charities. The last thing a strongman needs is a group of engaged community leaders telling people the truth.
Five years ago, international not-for-profit Civicus started tracking how countries treat civil society. When they began, Australia occupied the top ranking: “open”. That’s the rating enjoyed by Germany, Canada, Sweden, New Zealand and many other advanced countries.
But in 2019, Civicus downgraded Australia from “open” to “narrowed”. “We’re seeing a climate of intimidation aimed at discouraging dissent,” Civicus said. “Australians have always enjoyed a healthy scepticism of unchecked power, yet more recently it seems like the only people getting punished for government wrongdoing in Australia are the people who courageously reveal it.” We’ve been rated by Civicus as “narrowed” ever since.
From the moment the Abbott government won office, the Coalition has waged war on charities. One of their first acts upon getting elected in 2013 was to try to demolish the charities commission, a one-stop shop for charities.
Australia’s charities haven’t been silent in the face of the onslaught. They’ve written three open letters to successive Liberal prime ministers, complaining about the attempt to undermine the voluntary sector. They’ve held rallies and lobbied crossbenchers – most recently managing to see off a measure that would’ve allowed the commissioner to deregister charities if they held a protest that led to the blocking of a public footpath.
Charities are sick to the gills of having to fight off the Morrison government. Through a recession and a pandemic, charities have supported vulnerable people, despite a precipitous decline in the rate of volunteering. When Australia was ranked last in the advanced world for action on climate change, environmental charities and business groups kept up pressure on the government for a meaningful response to the climate crisis.
Religious leaders have been among the strongest critics of the war on charities. The Rev Tim Costello has compared attacks on charities by the Morrison government to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Objections have come from the St Vincent de Paul Society, Catholic Social Services Australia, Anglicare, and UnitingCare Australia.
Traditionally, conservatives have respected the role of community groups, but that’s changed under the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments. Today’s thin-skinned conservatives believe that social service charities should run soup kitchens but shouldn’t talk about poverty. They believe that environmental charities should plant trees but shouldn’t talk about climate change and deforestation. They believe that legal charities should assist people in court but shouldn’t talk about Indigenous incarceration. Like an old-fashioned parent, the Coalition believes that charities should be seen, but not heard.
What this narrow view misses is that the voices of charities bring a lived experience to public policy debates. That’s why Labor has spoken out against gag clauses in social service agreements. It’s why we were so concerned at attempts by the Liberals to prevent international not-for-profits from highlighting the fact that Australia’s foreign aid levels have now fallen to the lowest level since records began.
An Albanese Labor government would reset the relationship with the charity sector, engaging respectfully with community groups to create more secure jobs, to support people with disabilities and clean up local waterways. We won’t always agree with their political views, but we know that the democratic conversation is richer thanks to the voices of charities.
In place of a war on charities, Labor will work with charities on their priorities. One of these is to fix fundraising laws that were designed in a pre-internet age. A charity that raises money online has to register in seven different states and territories, a paperwork burden that costs charities more than a million dollars a month.
Fixing fundraising laws was flagged as a priority in a 2018 Senate report chaired by Senator Catryna Bilyk, which gave the government two years to find a solution. Next month, it will be four years since the report was handed down, and still the problem hasn’t been solved. As with many problems Australia confronts, it’s pretty clear to everyone that it will take a Labor government to fix fundraising.
Andrew Leigh is the shadow assistant minister for charities