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Shooting the Messenger - Howard Government renews attacks on community groups

I rise tonight to speak about a very important sector in our community, and that is the third sector, or the NGO sector, as it is often referred to. This sector is essential to the wellbeing of our society and the health of our democracy. I agree with comments made in this place today by Senator Mason that there is a need to review the relationship between the third sector and the government in respect of policy development, service delivery and funding sustainability. I believe that the government has an agenda to undermine and disempower the NGO sector or at least support only those that agree with them, so there is a need for a review to distance and take away government control over the NGO sector.

A strong third sector is absolutely fundamental to ensuring that we have a strong and vibrant democracy. The third sector is the imagination of the nation and it has always led the way. It is the group with the big ideas and the big policy changes. These come from the third sector. The community sector, as it is also known, is the ideas engine of our nation and the carer of our society. The government does not just fail to understand the contribution and the scope of the community or not-for-profit sector, but it is ideologically opposed and actively hostile towards the involvement of the third sector in advocacy and policy formation. It does not simply fail to understand the manner in which the third sector acts, but it seeks to deny the third sector a legitimate role in advocating for social change and it characterises the third sector as being single-issue, special interest groups out selfishly to get as many resources as they can for their little patch.

The Howard government simply wants the community sector to be cheap service providers and would be perfectly happy for the sector to deliver social services cheaper and more effectively than private business or government departments can, provided of course that they keep their heads down and their mouths shut. Since coming to power the Howard government has led a very clear and well-documented agenda to attack, undermine, compromise and silence the not-for-profit sector. This was first articulated in the Prime Minister's 1996 Menzies Lecture when, in talking about the non-government and voluntary sector, Mr Howard characterised it as comprising single-issue groups, special interests and elites. This was very much at odds with the finding of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Community Affairs in 1991 when it reported on community organisations and stated:

An integral part of the consultative and lobbying role of these organisations is to disagree with Government policy where this is necessary in order to represent the interests of their constituencies
Mr Howard's comments signalled the start of a concerted campaign to undermine the role of the third sector in our democracy.

Within the first few years of his government more than 50 per cent of the peak groups in health, education and welfare experienced significant cuts in funding, with 20 per cent losing all funding. It was very clearly demonstrated that these cuts related to groups that were involved in public advocacy: these were the groups that lost their funding. Not only did these cuts in funding occur to environmental organisations, but environmental organisations were being progressively excluded from a lot of the major advisory bodies that they had been participating in. Then we saw the second round of attacks on environment groups in 2005, when complete funding was withdrawn from the state conservation councils-and I can speak of this, having worked for a conservation council for a number of years.

Funding cuts are not the only strategies that the government uses to get at NGOs. There have also been forced amalgamations, the use of the purchaser-provider contracts which are replacing core funding and increasingly tie those organisations to government, and the inclusion of confidentiality clauses which then stop NGOs speaking out for their client groups, and this again restricts their advocacy. In the early 2000s the government-and Senator Mason also referred to this today-instigated a review of the Tax Act and proposed changes to the Tax Act which would exclude groups that were involved in advocacy. The NGOs and the community protested very strongly about this because an important part of a community's activities is advocacy.

At the same time, the government employed the Institute of Public Affairs to develop a protocol on NGOs. It might be interesting to note some of the comments that the IPA had made about NGOs. It characterised them as 'cashed up', 'a dictatorship of the articulate', 'a tyranny of the articulate' and 'a tyranny of the minorities'. Another comment was 'mail-order memberships of the wealthy Left, content to buy their activism and get on with their consumer lifestyle'.

The IPA was contracted by government-in a contract that I understand did not go through the normal guidelines as advocated by the National Audit Office-to come up with a protocol which we believe very strongly undermined non-government organisations.

It was with a sense of irony that I listened to the comments made by Senator Mason today, which I presume were the start of the government's renewed attack on NGOs.

He argued that there was a lack of transparency and said that accountability was threatening to undermine the good reputation of the not-for-profit or charity sector and that the government needed to step in to help them become more efficient and better structured. I wonder what it is that the government can teach NGOs about efficiency! Are they going to use their experience in how you deliver only 29c in the dollar to Indigenous communities to fund community programs? The NGO sector is used to running on the smell of an oily rag and is already efficient. NGOs have a long history of doing so much on very little. We are talking about charitable organisations whose survival is dependent on convincing their supporters to voluntarily part with their spare cash to achieve some greater good. It is hard to imagine a more direct model of public accountability than that.

Senator Mason said today:

The problem is that we cannot sort out the many good not-for-profit groups from the handful of bad ones or those who are underperforming.

I have several comments to make on that statement. Firstly, the thing that the government seem to be upset about is their lack of control over this sector, particularly in relation to the criticism they received over their bad social environment policies. It is not the role of government to sort out who are the good ones and who are the bad ones, no more than it is their role to tell shareholders which companies they should invest in. Secondly, Senator Mason's comments about the Wilderness Society demonstrate that his statement was clearly true-that is, they cannot sort out the good not-for-profit organisations from the bad ones.

I would like to quickly look at the Wilderness Society. If it were not for the Wilderness Society, which is probably the first cab off the rank for the government's new concerted attack on NGOs, we would not have the Daintree protected, we would not have the Franklin River protected, we would not have Kakadu protected, we would not have Fraser Island protected-to mention but a few. Nearly every national park in this country has come about as the result of community action and defence by organisations such as the Wilderness Society. These people and groups are defending our natural environment with the strong support of our community.

The examples I just went through in terms of the Wilderness Society's role in protecting some of our icon issues in Australia are of what they have done in the past. I wonder if the government is aware of some of the good work that they are doing now. For example, today I went to a presentation by Greening Australia on river recovery. Senator Ian Campbell launched this program-a very good program. He waxed lyrical about a very good program in the south-west of Western Australia called Gondwana Link. Surprise, surprise: the Wilderness Society are a major partner in that very project. They have developed the science on the basis of which that program is being undertaken. It is a thousand-kilometre corridor which is protecting biodiversity and nature conservation across the south of Western Australia. Their science is directing the on-the-ground work that the other partners are undertaking.

Also, Virginia Young, who is with the Wilderness Society, presented evidence to the national parks inquiry not long ago. I have to say that her evidence was amazing. The science that she presented to our committee was mind-boggling. They are in partnership with the ANU and other partners in undertaking science that nobody else is undertaking. They are funding and directing science to do with biodiversity in Australia-science that will underpin decision making on where national parks should go and how we can better refine how we carry out nature conservation and protection in this country; science that is absolutely essential in furthering environmental protection in this country.

And they are the only ones doing it.

I think it is fair to say that the degree to which they can bring science to bear and bring a series of experts to bear on this issue is mind-boggling. I would say that this is essential work in the protection of the environment in Australia and our ongoing democracy. Their advocacy, what they are doing, is absolutely essential if we are going to ensure environmental protection in this country.

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