The decision by the Howard government to appoint the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) to review the accountability of NGOs such as Oxfam and Greenpeace is not only a waste of taxpayer's dollars but a further blow to the notion of accountable and fair government policy review processes.
According to The Australian's
Denis Shanahan last Saturday, as part of its ongoing review of the charities sector, the Howard government has asked the IPA, a trenchant critic of NGOs, to "audit how thousands of non-government organisations lobby or work with government departments. They could be forced to prove they are legitimate representatives of community groups after the review."
The question can legitimately be asked; why is the government going to spend taxpayers' money on this review when it already knows the answer?
The person reported to be leading the review for the IPA, former Keating government minister Gary Johns has
written and spoken on the matter of NGOs on numerous occasions. In The Australian,
on the 30th of January 2002, Johns wrote that,
Governments should not grant NGOs privileges greater than those accorded any citizen. They should not assist NGOs nor give them access to policy forums,
unless they have standing. One way of managing the relationship with NGOs is to use a protocol, in this case a statement of credentials, which a government can
use to establish the standing of an advocacy body. Those NGOs granted standing should make information available by way of a publicly accessible register. The
key assumption of the protocol strategy is the primacy of democratic government and the public right to know with whom it is dealing.
In the same article, he suggested that the Federal government might follow the practice in the US and Canada, which deny tax-free status to groups who spend
more than 20 and 10 per cent respectively of their income on advocacy. No doubt he will include these suggestions as recommendations in his review!
Johns, of course, is not a lone ranger at the IPA on the matter of NGOs. His colleague, Don D'Cruz is
running a strong campaign against the involvement of Australian NGOs in regions such as West
Papua and Aceh. Once again, in The Australian, on 13 May 2002, D'Cruz said "there is something wrong with many of our foreign-aid NGOs. It seems that
Australia's foreign-aid NGOs are increasingly being drawn into the politics of the countries in which they operate".
And in the Adelaide Advertiser
on 18 July this year, D'Cruz wrote: "Disclosure standards in the non-profit
sector are poor particularly relative to those applied to business and government."
The point here is not that the IPA is right or wrong in its claims (that's
a separate issue), its simply that it is clearly a protagonist in the emerging
debate about the role of NGOs and their accountability, just as Oxfam and peak
welfare bodies such as ACOSS are also players
in this debate.
What the Howard government is doing in this instance is akin to appointing
the ACTU or the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry to conduct an inquiry
on behalf of a government about labor-market laws!
It is not as though there are not eminently qualified people and organizations
that could have undertaken the task the government has handed to the IPA. If the
Howard government was genuine about wanting to insure fairness to NGOs, taxpayers
and the critics such as the IPA, then it should have appointed the Auditor General
to carry out a review, based on a truly objective analysis of the facts. Alternatively,
it could have headed down a well-trodden path of appointing an individual or individuals
with no brief for either the NGOs or their critics, but who would bring to a review
first-class insight and experience in issues such as transparent accountancy,
corporate governance and understanding of the role of the charitable sector.
This exercise of course has a smell of revenge about it. It is fair to say
that many NGOs have been highly critical of the Howard government over the years.
The appointment of one of the government's key allies on the issue to conduct
this review can only be seen as a chance for John Howard and Peter Costello to
hit back at those critics.
The upshot is that transparent and accountable policy review processes have
been thrown out the window.
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