NGOs, government censorship and you

By Asher Hirsch

By Asher Hirsch

A vital component of Non Government Organisations (NGOs), as the name suggests, is that they remain independent of the government. Such independence is needed in order to effectively advocate for the marginalised, the environment and for those who can’t speak up for themselves. But because of a heavy reliance on government funding, and increasing use of gag clauses, NGOs are at risk of losing their vital independence.

Governments, at both the state and federal level, are increasingly contracting out services to independent providers, which is typically seen as a cost-cutting measure. As a result, more NGOs and community groups are providing services on behalf of government, in essence becoming contractors for government programs. As Browen Dalton noted recently in The Conversation, “Australia has a higher proportion of human services provided by [not for profits] than almost any other country, with the sector turning over $100 billion a year.”

However, this outsourcing means that NGOs are more reliant on government funding. And increasingly, government funding has come with heavy restrictions that threaten to jeopardise the indispensible independence of Australia’s NGOs.

Civil society – more often referred to in Australia as NGOs or the “community sector” – plays a vital part in a democratic political system. These organisations are pivotal in shaping public advocacy and in representing those who fall through the cracks. They ensure that every person is considered in the democratic process. They also fill in the gaps where government services and programs fail. Community groups provide much needed services in homelessness support, education, refugee resettlement, disability care, arts, and many other community programs.

And as more government contracts are taken over by not for profits, Australia becomes increasingly dependent on the services provided by NGOs.

Traditionally NGOs have been established through grassroots local activism, in which the public raised funds and campaigned for a range of issues, including local health services, disability and mental health support, and essential services for the disadvantaged. But these once radical organisations have more often than not resigned themselves to bidding for government contracts and complying with the direction of those contracts.

While NGOs and community groups without a doubt provide better services than a government department would, unfortunately the high rate of government outsourcing to the NGO sector means that many organisations now rely solely on government grants and contracts to stay in business. As such, there is an inherent conflict that many community groups feel as they attempt to remain independent while retaining much needed funding.

The nature of government-funded programs means that NGOs are under the direction and monitoring of the government agency that funds them. Thus as funding for some of the most vital services comes from government rather than through the public, it is the government decides which services are more important and inevitably controls the direction and delivery of such services. This model undermines the independence of NGOs, and ignores the expertise of those working on the ground to decide where services and funds need to be allocated.

In order to effectively represent those who are most vulnerable, NGOs need the freedom and independence to criticise government policies where necessary. In a 1991 report, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Community Affairs 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 constituents.

The nature of government funding is a threat to this independence. And, while the Abbott Government has stated it won’t seek to gag community groups, many in the sector are no so sure.

Much like the Howard years of NGO relations, today’s Liberal Party policies are worrying for many community groups. Many NGOs are concerned about the Liberal Party cabinet line-up, due to the removal of Ministries for Youth, Multiculturalism, Disability and Climate Change. The cuts to our foreign aid budget are also very worrying.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has threatened to prosecute those who advocate for consumer boycotts, cut funding for those who support the BDS campaign against Israeli settlements and cut indigenous services and legal aid.

The Queensland Government has already implemented a gag clause for organisations receiving 50 per cent or more of its funding. Such censorship prohibits these organisations from advocating for “state or federal legislative change” or from including “links on their website to other organisations’ websites that advocate for State or Federal legislative change”.

Last year, Queensland Association for Healthy Communities, which has a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender focus, lost its funding because of its advocacy around civil unions and child surrogacy.  NSW has also followed suit, with community legal centres gagged from “lobbying governments and elected officials on law reform and policy issues” as well as “public campaigning and advocacy, including the use of traditional and social media, participation in rallies or demonstrations for causes seeking changes to government policies or laws.’” Many fear that other states, and even the federal government, will follow with similar gag orders.

The Not-for-profit Sector Freedom to Advocate Act 2013, implemented just before the election, is a good start. The Act prohibits gag orders from any Commonwealth agreement, thus giving NGOs legislative freedom of speech, and effectively removes any existing gag orders. However, the Act does not go far enough, and there are still concerns that the government could simply not renew any contract for an NGO they disapprove of. With many NGOs stretched to the limit and desperate for funding, even a threat of not having a contract renewed is enough to silence them. Such a threat leads to self-censoring, where NGOs refrain from critiquing government policies in order to remain in the government’s favour for the next round of tenders. Furthermore, the current tender process, where community groups are required to compete against each other for a tiny amount of funding also breeds competition rather than cooperation. Such a model creates further disunity between NGOs and leads to a race to the bottom.

Because the work of NGOs is crucial, many not for profits may inevitably submit to censorship, preferring this to being forced to stop their services. For those who are at the coalface of service delivery, supporting their client’s immediate issues may often come before advocating for systemic changes.

Should governments be funding these essential services? Absolutely. But as soon as they do, the service becomes politicised. The very act of funding certain services over others is a political tool. While the removal of gag clauses and other freedom of speech safeguards are needed, they are not enough.

If you want an independent organisation that advocates for human rights, then you need to pay for it.

This is where you step in.

In order to remain independent, NGOs need alternative revenue sources. Government funding, while important, comes with many restrictions – whether implied or expressed. If you want an independent organisation that advocates for human rights, then you need to pay for it. True independence relies on grassroots charity and membership, much like how NGOs were traditionally established.

Some newer NGOs, such as the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre or RISE refuse to receive funding from the Commonwealth Government, in order to remain fiercely independent. However, such programs desperately rely on the support of the public. Unfortunately, Australia’s level of charity is low – and getting lower. In 2012, 66 per cent of Australians aged 14 and over donated to charity – down from 70 per cent in December 2008. Another study shows that Australians donated about $2.21 billion to charity in 2010-11, only around 0.2 per cent of our GDP for that year. While studies vary, compared to the rest of the world, Australia also gives less per GDP than other developing nations – Australian high net worth individuals give under 2 per cent of their taxable income, compared to 3.2 per cent in Canada and a range of 3.5 per cent to 7 per cent in the USA.

Independent NGOs are crucial for continual development of human rights in Australia. In order to sustain their independence, NGOs rely on the public. A good place to start is Pro Bono Australia’s Guide to Giving.


Asher Hirsch has worked in the NGO sector for several years. Any views and opinions reflected in this article are the authors own and not necessarily that of any associated organisations.