The Coalition's NGO Utopia


In the heart of a recent speech delivered at the Centre for Independent Studies, Shadow Minister for Human Services Kevin Andrews said that the “charity and not-for-profit sector has a long history of responsible governance and management”. It's the sort of thing that is often said to commend community initiative, but is flawed analysis. Andrews wants constraints on the community sector to be minimised and the recently formed Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission transformed into a “small” organisation with “education and training” functions only.

It is interesting that he should be saying such things at the very time the nation has created a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The Commission will be investigating a whole range of not-for-profits working in education, childcare, culture, religion and sport. When it comes to the rights of children, can Andrews really say that there has been a long history of responsible management?

By not mentioning the Royal Commission in a major speech on civil society and the role of government, Andrews invites us to conclude that he sees his role more as a defender of institutional interests, rather than of the rights and interests of real people.

Surely the fact that we need a powerful and far-reaching Royal Commission tells us something about our society? Perhaps not – as Andrews sees it “the community” is being over-regulated by the big, bad state.

If anything, the failure of the state in its duty to children and other vulnerable people stands out in any non-judgmental analysis of the community sector in our history. How many times have we heard it said by the leaders of NGOs caught covering up malpractice that they believed they had a duty to protect the “reputation” of their organisation? More worrying still is the use of the liberal principle of freedom of religion to justify exemption from scrutiny of evil behaviour. Indeed, scrutiny demanded by the facts is often resisted as being “discriminatory”.

The relationship between individuals, families, communities and governments is complex at the best of times. By saying we merely need to minimise regulation of, and devolve community functions to, civil society and the NGO sector, he vastly oversimplifies the matter.

Having been involved in a range of both large and small community-based organisations over many years my conclusions are quite different to Andrews'. Yes, it is true that regulations and requirements laid down by governments are often burdensome and difficult to meet. Sometimes they are plain silly. But is it true, as he says, that “When the State directs the activity of civil society, it enfeebles the ability of citizens to take responsibility for their own community and society”?

But in my experience NGOs become more professional and considerate of a wider range of interests when they are assisted by the state.

It is also true to say that increased government funding of NGOs has created complex patterns of management and accountability. It doesn't necessarily follow that deregulation will “liberate” philanthropy and lead to a better society. Hasn’t the government often been an important facilitator of community involvement and engagement?

Andrews' version of subsidiarity is naïve and dangerous. He would take us back to a time when charity was central to, rather than supportive of, a welfare system for the vulnerable and disadvantaged. He chooses not to mention that many charities, like governments, have their rules and regulations when it comes to service provision. Some have little impact but some may be seriously flawed when it comes to the rights and interests of not only the recipients of support but also the staff involved.

Andrews is an advocate for small government and big society. “A blending of the role of government and the civil sector”, he says, “risks the domination of the government sphere over all others”. So it does — but isn't there also a risk that the “Big Society” will see another, nastier form of “domination”? Indeed, the very tone and emphasis of his speech is feudal and deferential — “The political community should be of service to civil society” — rather than rights-based and democratic.

We should encourage voluntary action and an energetic civil society. NGO provision of government-funded services can also be a good thing. We do live in a society where there is an overlap between private and public, community and government. Nonetheless, tensions regarding who is ultimately accountable can’t be ignored and must be managed — they are part of the fabric of our democracy. Their resolution is a work-in-progress rather than the end point of a narrowly conceived ideology.

To picture government as the enemy in this complex set of relationships takes out of play all of the initiatives designed to promote equal opportunity in a world of diversity. In a democracy like ours, community values will of necessity be both universal and particular, with human rights on the one side and cultural expression on the other. The system of “freedom within limits” that we have should be judged by the results that emerge when either freedom is expanded, or limits imposed. It’s the very essence of what it means to live in a democratic community that we work through these issues.

In this context I note too that Andrews refers to left-of-centre initiatives here and overseas, such as in Britain, that seem to support his line about the community sector. However, he neglects to mention that at the very time the Blair government was encouraging community involvement and devolving some service delivery, it passed the Human Rights Act.

I’m sure that broad-based accountability to human rights is something Andrews doesn't support — after all, it is a very modern sounding idea! It is, however, the sort of backdrop you need to ensure that the public interest comes out on top when legislating and regulating family, community and government.

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