Political parties urged to halt the erosion of Australia's democracy: new report

From Chain Reaction #126, April 2016, national magazine of Friends of the Earth, Australia www.archive.foe.org.au/chain-reaction

Australia's political parties must stop eroding many of the vital foundations of Australia's democracy, the Human Rights Law Centre said in a new report launched in Canberra in February. Civil society leaders joined the launch to highlight the critical role that civil society plays in a healthy and robust democracy.

"Open government, a free press, a strong and diverse civil society and the rule of law are some of the vital foundations of our democracy. Yet we are witnessing an unmistakeable trend in Australia of governments eroding these foundations with new laws and practices that entrench secrecy and stifle criticism and accountability," said Hugh de Kretser, Executive Director of the Human Rights Law Centre.

The Safeguarding Democracy report documents how federal and state governments are adopting new laws and practices that undermine critical components of Australia's democracy like press freedom, the rule of law, protest rights, NGO advocacy and courts and other institutions. It presents 38 recommendations to stop the erosion and strengthen Australia's democracy.

A short excerpt from the 42-page report is published below.

Despite Australia's strong democratic history, there is a clear and disturbing trend of new laws and practices eroding many of these foundations. Federal and state governments have stepped up efforts to avoid scrutiny, reduce transparency and limit accountability in order to expand government power, advantage political elites and advance the interests of business. Governments are using a range of funding levers to stifle advocacy by non-government organisations that represent vulnerable minorities.

Environmental groups who challenge the fossil fuel industry are facing threats to their financial viability though attempts to remove their charity tax concessions. A number of states have enacted excessive and unnecessary anti-protest laws that prioritise business and political interests over protest rights.

Whistleblowers who expose even the most serious human rights abuses against children now face unprecedented risks of reprisals including prosecution and jail.

Press freedom is being eroded by new laws and policies jeopardising journalists' ability to maintain the confidentiality of sources and to report on matters of public interest. All the while, in critical areas governments are undermining or sidelining the courts and institutions like the Australian Human Rights Commission, the nation's human rights watchdog, that were created to keep them in check.

The success of Australia's democracy relies on much more than the ability of adults to cast a free vote on election day. For our democracy to thrive, we need free speech, the free flow of information and a free press to hold government accountable and to inform peoples' voting decisions. We need to be able to organise and protest on issues that concern us. We need an environment in which civil society can effectively participate.

We need institutions, organisations and practices to prevent and expose misconduct and abuse of power; to ensure that government and elected representatives act in the best interests of the Australian public instead of prioritising powerful business and political interests; and to ensure that the interests of vulnerable minority groups are represented in policy debates.

Attacks on advocacy by non-government organisations

Direct and indirect attacks by government on civil society using a range of financial levers have undermined the ability of non-government organisations to advocate and threatened their independence.

Peak bodies and other non-government organisations that advocate for legal and policy reform have been defunded. A parliamentary inquiry threatens to remove the charity tax concessions of outspoken environmental organisations. Governments have amended funding agreements to either prohibit the use of government funding to undertake advocacy work or prohibit advocacy outright.

Ignoring strong evidence of the public value of advocacy activities, governments have created false distinctions between "frontline services" (which are deemed worthy of government funding) and "advocacy" (that, apparently, is not).

The rationale for the attacks is varied. Some attacks on environmental organisations reflect the power and influence of the fossil fuel industry. Other attacks seek to bolster the power of the executive arm of government by stifling criticism of government policy.

The attacks threaten the viability of many organisations and the spectre of further funding cuts and reprisals has generated an atmosphere of self-censorship among some government-funded organisations. Community organisations are being given a clear message: if you speak out against government you risk losing your funding.

Attacks on the right to peaceful protest

Australian people's movements have secured many of the rights and privileges that we take for granted. The suffragist movements led to women's voting rights.

The Gurindji walk-out played a key role in securing Aboriginal land rights. Environmental protests saved the Franklin River and a decade-long movement to celebrate "Sorry Day" preceded the official 2008 apology to the Stolen Generations.

However, State governments have passed far-reaching and dangerous laws that undermine our right to peaceful protest. Tasmania and Western Australia have introduced or proposed laws aimed at restricting protest in order to protect commercial interests, particularly forestry or mining operations. Queensland passed excessive anti-protest laws in connection with the G20 summit. These laws get the balance wrong – unduly favouring the government and vested business interests at the expense of the democratic right to protest.

Attacks on whistleblowers and press freedom

New laws and practices have unjustifiably increased government secrecy, particularly in the areas of national security and immigration. The Australian Government now refuses to make available basic and timely information about immigration matters of intense public interest that it previously routinely provided. The Australian Government tightly controls journalists' access to immigration detention centres in Australia including the content of any reporting. Journalists are all but prevented from visiting the offshore detention centre on Manus Island or even entering Nauru.

The 2015 Border Force Act intensified this suffocating culture of secrecy. It threatens immigration workers and contractors with two years in jail for recording or disclosing information about events that they witness. The Act has inspired protest from medical staff who say they are unable to act in accordance with their ethical duties without risking prosecution.

New ASIO laws have criminalised the disclosure of information about ‘special intelligence operations' regardless of the public interest in exposing any potential wrongdoing by ASIO.
Increased secrecy has meant that whistleblowing ‒ insiders exposing misconduct and illegality ‒ has become even more important.

Yet whistleblower protections are complex, unwieldy and inadequate to protect those who wish to disclose abuses. Worse, the Australian Government has responded to whistleblowers with increasingly aggressive reprisals including referrals to the Australian Federal Police for investigation and potential prosecution. This response increases the chilling effect on others who might consider exposing wrongdoing.

Separately, new laws have mandated the stockpiling of huge rafts of metadata generated by individuals, giving law enforcement agencies the tools to expose journalists' confidential sources.

The cumulative effect of these changes has made it far harder for the Australian media to do its job informing the Australian public and holding government accountable. Numerous senior journalists and media organisations have spoken out against them with the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance calling the national security law reforms "the greatest assault on press freedom in peacetime."

Seizing the opportunity to renew our democracy

The new report from the Human Rights Law Centre identifies a range of measures that are eroding Australia's democracy. The measures are not isolated. They are occurring across a range of policy areas and at both the state and federal level. There is a clear trend and it is corroding our democracy and human rights. This report seeks to highlight this trend in order to stop it.

Encouragingly, the work of stopping the regression has already begun in some states, with new state governments repealing excessive move on powers that threatened protest rights in Victoria and removing gag clauses from funding agreements with non-government organisations in Queensland.

However, more than simply arresting this trend, we must use this opportunity to truly strengthen our democracy. We need to protect and promote fundamental human rights from government intrusion, including the rights to free speech, freedom of association and peaceful protest. We need to respect the rule of law and encourage, rather than diminish, oversight by our independent court system. We need properly resourced and mandated institutions capable of holding government accountable. We need an environment in which civil society is resourced and empowered to speak on behalf of its constituencies.

The full report is online:

Human Rights Law Centre, February 2016, 'Safeguarding Democracy', http://hrlc.org.au/safeguardingdemocrac