In 2004 The Australia Institute led a survey of the non-government sector and produced the report Silencing Dissent: Non-government organisations and Australian democracy. It concluded that NGOs felt the government was undermining their credibility, shutting them out of civic discourse, defunding (or threatening to defund) organisations that were considered uncooperative, and micromanaging NGO activities by dismantling peak bodies.
The report detailed the growing fears across the NGO sector concerning their right to advocate in the public policy domains of most concern to them, and more broadly about their changing role in the democratic process.
A lot has happened in the 13 years since this report was published including changes to the political and regulatory landscape, the formation of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission, the passing of the Charities Act and advances in the digital landscape.
However the threat to advocacy remains a concern.
Civil Voices set out to re-examine NGO perceptions about their capacity to participate in public debate and see how public debate and advocacy has changed since the last study.
What we found is that not for profits are on a path of quiet advocacy. To a greater or lesser degree civil society organisations are engaging in various forms of “self silencing” – treading very carefully in their advocacy work less they risk financial security and political retribution.
Australian civil society needs to be supported, and encouraged to engage in frank and fearless advocacy. We cannot allow ourselves to become complacent in this regard.
The more the silencing of civil society is normalised the higher the risk becomes to the overall quality of Australian democracy.
According to Civil Voices, 89 per cent of organisations used social media to “get their message heard” as part of their communications strategy.
Since the 2004 survey, the development of multiple social media platforms has transformed the way that NGOs participate in public debate and communicate with their members and stakeholders. The traditional tools of public communication and advocacy, such as letters to the editor, media releases, and public protests have become less prevalent since 2004. In 2004, it was concluded that many organisations used “less visible methods” to inform public debates. This is not the case in 2017, with the rise in use of social media for public messaging. Surprisingly, however—given that Facebook has existed since 2004, YouTube from 2005, and Twitter since 2006—the survey found that 11 per cent of respondents are not using any social media at all.
Are you part of the 11 per cent?
According to Civil Voices, the most important audience for civil society advocacy is politicians, at both state and federal levels.
In both the 2017 and 2004 data, state government ministers were a more important target audience than their federal counterparts, although in 2017, shadow ministers were not targeted as prominently as in 2004.
See the chart below for where else respondents were targeting:
According to Civil Voices the majority of respondents (62 per cent) believed they had experienced more success in having their messages heard in the past compared to the present.
pressure to do things quietly
ie competition for attention from similar organistions
The most significant barrier to being heard was an organisation’s “lack of media liaison resources” (38 per cent). The next most cited reasons were a perception that mainstream media (35 per cent) and government were not interested (36 per cent). One in three respondents suggested that messages were being drowned out by “too much noise”. One in five believed that their funding agreement restricted their ability to comment on government policy. Twelve per cent perceived internal pressure (from the board or management) to “do things quietly”.
However, this picture is complicated. When the opposite end of the Likert scale is examined, it shows that 45 per cent of NGOs do not perceive any internal pressure to do things quietly; and 43 per cent do not perceive their funding agreement as restricting their capacity to comment on government policy—the same percentage of respondents that did not consider funding agreements a barrier as in 2004. Interestingly, the top four barriers to being heard remain unchanged over the past 13 years.
When asked to rate out of 100 the extent to which anxiety about maintaining the organisation’s DGR status would affect decisions about whether to engage in public debate/advocacy the mean response was 39.
The mean was slightly higher for state-based than national organisations. This suggests that concern about the impact of advocacy on DGR status was not most organisations’ primary consideration, but it nevertheless remains an issue for a large minority.
NGOs most concerned with the loss of DGR status were those working in law, justice and human rights (mean = 45); children’s services (mean = 47); Immigration and refugees (mean = 48); religion and religious groups (mean = 51).
In a separate question a total of 40 per cent directly linked the airing of dissenting viewpoints as a threat to their DGR status.
40 per cent directly link the airing of dissenting viewpoints as a threat to their DGR status.
Charities in Australia currently enjoy some of the strongest legal protections in the world to engage in advocacy, but not everyone knows their rights.
Take our true or false quiz to see how you stack up.
A charity may undertake advocacy activities without having a specific subtype of advancing public debate, as long as the advocacy is in line with its charitable purposes.
For example: A charity with the purpose of advancing education can advocate and campaign on education issues. However, if it engages in partisan advocacy, it runs the risk of being found to have a purpose of promoting or opposing a political party or candidate.
Provided the advocacy is to promote the charitable purpose of the charity, or the interests of its beneficiaries.
For example: A charity that also has the charitable purpose of advancing social or public welfare and delivers services to victims of violence can promote a change to the law which would increase criminal penalties for perpetrators of family violence.
It can do this in a variety of ways - such as meeting with elected representatives or officials or making written submissions. In doing so, the charity should remain neutral on any party views. If board members are open and transparent about such engagement, this can help ensure public perceptions of neutrality.
As long as the activities are carried out to promote the charitable purpose of the charity. However if the activities explicitly support or endorse a particular political party or candidate, the charity runs the risk of being found to have a disqualifying political purpose.
- A charity with the purpose of advancing education should take care when producing and distributing flyers. A flyer that states: "Vote (named party) first to support local schools" may be perceived as explicitly supporting a particular party which may indicate a disqualifying political purpose.
- A charity with the purpose of advancing education can produce and distribute a flyer that states a party’s policies in relation to education and allows readers to draw their own conclusions.
A charity cannot have a purpose to engage in or promote activity that is illegal.
For example: A charity with a purpose of advancing the natural environment cannot have a purpose of encouraging its members to engage in illegal methods such as intimidation, trespassing or assault to promote a change to the law regarding logging.
However, if the charity explicitly tells its members or supporters which party to vote for based on the findings of the research, it runs the risk of being found to have a disqualifying political purpose.
For example: A charity with the purpose of advancing the safety and security of the Australian public that provides advice and support to victims of crime can produce research on the impact of current or proposed government policy on law enforcement and publish this research.
It’s okay for a charity to:
- have a purpose of advancing public debate – including promoting or opposing a change in law – where this furthers or aids another charitable purpose;
- have a purpose to promote or oppose a change to a law, policy or practice in the Commonwealth, a state or territory or another country where this furthers or aids another charitable purpose.
It’s not okay for a charity to:
- have a purpose to promote or oppose a political party or a candidate for political office;
- have a purpose to engage in or promote activities that are unlawful;
- have a purpose to engage in or promote activities that are contrary to public policy (which, in this context, means the rule of law, our constitutional system, the safety of the public or national security).