Two weeks after the budget the Mr Morrison withdrew funding for the Refugee Council of Australia, which had been allocated in the budget papers, saying he and the government did not believe that “taxpayer funding should be there to support what is effectively an advocacy group”.
Many Australians are gravely concerned at the withdrawal of Commonwealth funding from the Refugee Council of Australia. The Refugee Council undertakes an important role in balancing the issues of concern relevant to asylum seekers and refugees in Australia.
To suggest that “…taxpayers’ funds were not going to be spent on those types of activities…”negates by ministerial decree the longstanding view that civil society is a key plank in our democratic process. Unilaterally removing this fund allocation despite it being included in the government’s proposed budget, sends a message to all of civil society that our views, our work and our advocacy is neither valued nor welcome.
An essential plank of democracy is the recognition that we all have the right to views which may dissent from those of the government of the day. When the government of the day determines to withdraw funds ostensibly for cost cutting measures – but clearly aimed at silencing a critical prophetic voice – bodes well for neither democracy or open government in Australia
The Australian Council of Social Service is concerned that the Abbott government is seeking to gag the welfare sector after Immigration Minister Morrison commented that government funding should not be used to support advocacy groups.
Government funding for a wide range of community organisations (including ACOSS) expires on December 31 after a budget decision to extend it for only six months while new long-term arrangements are developed. The organisations have been told their grants might be put out to tender.
But this is not without precedent.
When John Howard became prime minister, he made sure the tactics he used so brilliantly to claw down his rivals would never be turned against his government. The great leaker would stop the leaks. There would be zero tolerance for dissent within the party, the government and the bureaucracy. The Howard government imposed gag clauses on a number of welfare and advocacy organisations as a condition of receiving government money. The then communications minister Richard Alston was lashing the ABC over budgets and bias. A diatribe of abuse against critics of government decisions grew.
This was an ideologically driven battering of civil society organisations and voices in Australia. The Liberal Party and its ideological cronies sought to dominate the intellectual life of the country. The history wars was another key battle ground, where Howard’s attack dogs argued viciously against the findings of the Bringing Them Home report prepared by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.
In Silencing Dissent, an anonymous voice articulated the rhetoric perfectly: “We do not fund organisations to criticise us.”
Ten years later, the editors of Silencing Dissent Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison claim to find “an alarming decline in the health of Australian democracy over the last decade”.
But, is it that bad? Canberra journalists spend their professional lives dealing with government and their diagnosis on the Howard era is just as disturbing. After interviewing 24 senior reporters in the parliamentary press gallery a Queensland academic and former Canberra journalist wrote “The interviews paint a picture of cumulative deterioration in sources of political news and information, describing new layers of disempowerment, frustration and disinformation. Most interviewees noted that the Howard Government had ushered in a decade of unprecedented executive control over political communication.”
Silencing Dissent reminded us that starving universities and bashing the ABC began under Labor and that Labor governments have never legislated to protect whistle-blowers. What made the Howard era different was what Robert Manne calls “a partly-instinctive and partly-conscious policy of systematically silencing significant political dissent”.
The problem we now have is that the nation seems apathetic about the undermining of dissent and advocacy. “While Australia has been transformed,” Manne writes, “large parts of the nation have seemed to be asleep.”