In a representative democracy citizens get a say at elections in how the country is run, but a strong participatory democracy depends on a more actively engaged population. Governments should hear from citizens every day and should do all they can to make it easier to participate in democracy, not harder.
In the past, non-government organisations such as charities, churches and environment groups have played a valuable role in encouraging public debate. Soon after the Howard Government was elected, however, many of these began to lose funding. Groups representing some of the poorest and least powerful people, such as the Australian Pensioners' and Superannuants' Federation, National Shelter, the Association of Civilian Widows and the Australian Youth Policy and Action Coalition lost their funding. No government likes to be criticised, but in the past governments have accepted that it is part of the role of non-government organisations to advocate for their constituencies.
As well as losing funding, non-government organisations have been silenced in other ways. Many groups that receive some funding from the government have contracts that include confidentiality clauses which prevent them making public comment. Even where confidentiality agreements do not apply, many non-government organisations self-censor for fear of losing their funding.
A study by the Australia Institute showed that among non-government organisations that receive government support, about 70 per cent report the funding restricts their ability to comment on government policy. The report showed 76 per cent disagreed with the statement that "current Australian political culture encourages public debate".
Such tightly controlled funding has the added advantage of allowing the government to badge every dollar spent. Instead of contributing funding to a state-wide conservation council, for example, the government can fund 100 small tree-planting projects with 100 ribbon-cutting photo opportunities to be attended by government MPs.
The government threatened to introduce a Bill to remove charitable status from organisations which engage in advocacy: if you help the homeless it's OK; if you say there shouldn't be so many homeless you lose funding. If an organisation survives without government funding, it could lose its charitable status.
Churches have been sandwiched in this. The government wants to hand over more social welfare work to churches and charities, but if the churches want to voice an opinion about public policy in their areas of expertise - poverty, for example - they get told to keep their opinions to themselves.
The Institute of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank (which has charitable status and does not disclose its donors), has led the charge against cashed-up non-government organisations which are an unrepresentative dictatorship of the articulate. The institute received $50,000 of government funding to audit non-government organisations to determine if they were legitimate representatives of the people they claimed to represent. It's like asking the Temperance League to determine pub opening hours.
On top of this constriction of debate caused by the intimidation of non-government organisations, fundamental changes have recently been made to the Electoral Act. The electoral roll will close as soon as the writs are issued, not a week later. In the last election 425,000 people changed or updated their enrolment, or enrolled to vote for the first time, in that week. Under the new system they would be ineligible to vote. Most of those who will miss out on voting will be young people, first-time voters or people who have changed their address. The Australian Electoral Commission criticised this proposal, yet the government has proceeded. It looks like an intentional effort to disenfranchise some voters.
The federal Senate committee system, which has canvassed important issues ,such as the treatment of children in institutional care, will have fewer committees - and fewer inquiries. This means fewer ordinary Australians will have the chance to tell their stories on the public record and less opportunity to influence government decision-making.
The Prime Minister's Department even had a satirical website shut down. It is reported that Richard Neville's Johnhowardpm.org was closed by a phone call from the department to the internet service provider within 36 hours of being set up. Perhaps he was fortunate not to be tried for sedition.
A strong democracy depends on its citizens being given a variety of ways to have their say - not just at election time but every day. This government has done all it can to close off those channels and silence those voices. It calls them minorities. A minority of 340,000 people marched for reconciliation in 2000; a minority of 275,000 marched against the war on Iraq. Last month, 125,000 marched against the industrial relations changes. Do these minorities really not deserve a say in how our country is run?
Discuss in our Forums
See what other readers are saying about this article!
Click here to read & post comments.
30 posts so far.