Democracy Is The Biggest Victim In Turnbull’s War On Charities


The intent of stalled legislation being pushed by the federal government is clear – to weaken the capacity of charities, particularly environmental groups, to oppose government excesses. Dr Kyla Tienhaara and Professor John Dryzek explain.

Reasonable people don’t associate charities with espionage and other cloak-and-dagger activities usually reserved for spies and foreign agents.

So why is the Turnbull Government trying to jam through legislation that treats all of these actors alike, in much the same way as many authoritarian countries do?

Stranger still, why are they doing it while ignoring the more obvious threats to our democracy like well-funded corporate lobbying groups who not only interfere in policy-making, but also brag about forcing the government to bend to their will?

Governments in Australia have been waging a not-so-silent war on the not-for-profit sector, and particularly environmental NGOs, for some time. Tactics have ranged from attacks on the charitable status of groups to efforts to criminalise protest.

But in recent months, the battle has become more covert and more insidious with the introduction of a suite of foreign interference laws that has the potential to substantially disrupt the ability of NGOs to engage in political advocacy.

Proposed bills currently before Parliament include: changes to the definition of espionage that make it broad enough to capture the normal activities of international NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Greenpeace; a ban on foreign donations to certain NGOs; and extensive limitations on the administration and use of foreign funding by registered charities.

There is also a new requirement for charities that receive any kind of support or donation from outside Australia to register in a “Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme” (a phrase that would be at home in a dystopian novel like 1984) or face serious criminal penalties.

The purported justification for this suite of bills is the need to curb foreign influence over the political system, particularly in the wake of the Chinese donations scandal that resulted in the resignation of Senator Sam Dastyari. However, numerous legal experts have pointed out that, in their current form, the bills are unlikely to properly address corruption or foreign influence.

Former Labor Senator Sam Dastyari.

In fact, the legislation could have the opposite effect. NGOs play a critical role in scrutinising relationships between businesses and politicians, and hobbling them will inevitably increase opportunities for corruption. In this regard, it is worth noting that corporations (both foreign and domestic) have received broad exemptions from much of the proposed legislation. They will be able to continue to “pay for access” to politicians unhindered.

Opinion surveys show that public trust in Australian democracy is in precipitous decline. Given increasing public distrust of Australian politics and politicians, democracy here needs all the help it can get.

The importance of NGOs, and their ability to advocate, to the proper functioning of democracy cannot be overstated. Advocacy ensures that a diverse range of views and voices is represented in policy debate. Analysts of democracy increasingly stress that we cannot rely on the simple fact of elections to secure democracy; so much more is required. In particular, ongoing meaningful communication encompassing citizens and leaders is essential.

Democracy requires a critical public sphere where citizens, activists, journalists, social movements, think tanks, and new media can join in creating inclusive and consequential debate about the direction of public policy. The Coalition’s proposed legal “reforms” will take us in precisely the opposite direction and all Australians should be concerned.

When radical conservative think tank the Institute for Public Affairs and community activist group GetUp! are opposed to the same legislation, it is clear that we have moved well beyond traditional left-right politics. The proposed bills would dramatically weaken Australian democracy, which affects all of us.

Unfortunately, the Australian Government is not alone in its efforts to restrict foreign funding and otherwise constrain the ability of NGOs to operate. There is an increasing global trend to limit the freedom of civil society.

The most notable examples of repression of the not-for-profit sector can be found in authoritarian countries such as Russia and China and in particular Turkey, where democracy is fading in a state of emergency, and government treats critics harshly.

The closest model for the Coalition’s proposals can be found in Hungary, where an authoritarian, nationalist and increasingly anti-Semitic government has passed laws designed to destroy civil society by associating it with the ‘foreign’ influence of George Soros, who (among other things) founded Hungary’s best university.

The current government of Hungary chooses to forget the crucial role that transnational civil society once played in undermining communist dictatorship and then building the country’s new democracy after 1989.

The club of old and new authoritarian states is not one that Australia should be seeking to join, nor should it be sending the message to other countries that curbing the rights and freedoms of NGOs is appropriate.

Beleaguered democratic activists in these countries should be looking for support and inspiration from countries such as Australia. Instead, what they may soon find is a source of comfort for their oppressors.

Kyla Tienhaara & Prof John Dryzek

Dr Kyla Tienhaara is the Research and Investigations Coordinator at Greenpeace Australia Pacific and a Visiting Fellow at the School of Regulation and Global Governance, ANU. Prof John Dryzek is a Centenary Professor and ARC Laureate Fellow in the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra.