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 today.
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.
“We need to stop this corrosive trend and strengthen our democracy. This report outlines a way forward. With an election later this year, it’s time for our politicians to commit to upholding our democracy,” said Mr de Kretser.
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 outlines 38 recommendations to stop the erosion and strengthen our democracy.
Attacks on whistleblowers and press freedom
The report documents increasing government secrecy, particularly in the areas of asylum seeker policy and national security. The Australian Government has responded to whistleblowers with aggressive reprisals. New metadata laws give law enforcement agencies more tools to expose journalists’ confidential sources.
“Australia is going backwards on press freedom at a time when we need it more than ever. Governments are restricting access to information, fortifying secrecy laws, stifling whistleblowers and undermining the confidentiality of journalists’ sources. A free press is essential to underpin a free and open democracy. We must reverse this trend as a matter of urgency,” said Professor David Weisbrot, Chair of the Australian Press Council.
“A free media is a fundamental part of a functioning democracy. Anything that degrades that freedom also damages the system that has made Australia one of the most peaceful, stable, prosperous places on the planet. The government has been using national security as an excuse to erode the space that journalists are able to work in, without any apparent tangible gain in our safety, or enough vigorous public debate about the tradeoffs,” said Peter Greste.
“Transparency is vital to prevent and respond to misconduct and abuse. Where secrecy flourishes, human rights abuses become more likely. The secrecy surrounding our offshore processing regime means that the Australian people are forced to judge the merits of acts done in their name without all of the facts on the table, forcing whistleblowers to take matters into their own hands. We urgently need to wind back our secrecy laws and increase the transparency and accountability of this regime,” said Mat Tinkler, Director of Policy and Public Affairs at Save the Children.
Attacks on advocacy by community organisations
The report outlines ways that federal and state governments are increasingly using funding levers, ranging from gag clauses in funding agreements to targeted funding cuts, to suppress advocacy and criticism from community organisations.
“Community organisations make a vital contribution to our society and economy, from running homeless shelters to supporting people with disabilities to engage in the decisions that affect them. Advocacy is a key element of this contribution. It improves laws and policies and ensures the voices of vulnerable groups are heard in policy debates. Yet savage cuts through the last two Federal Budgets have eroded the contribution of many of these organisations. Instead of removing support for advocacy by community organisations, governments should welcome and encourage it, even when it’s uncomfortable for them. The health of our democracy relies on it,” said Dr Cassandra Goldie, CEO of the Australian Council of Social Service.
“From the Franklin River to the Great Barrier Reef, conservation groups have played a vital role in protecting Australia’s special places,” said Kelly O’Shanassy, CEO of the Australian Conservation Foundation. “Instead of trying to silence conservation groups through political attacks on charity tax concessions, the Government should encourage them to speak out. It’s in all of our interests.”
The Australian Government has defunded a range of peak organisations that represented the views of their sectors and constituencies including the representative body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples.
“Our organisation provides a national voice for our people. It provides leadership, advocacy, advice and expertise. Our board is directly elected by our membership which is open to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations. The government has cut our funding and appointed its own hand-picked advisory group. It’s a huge backward step for self-determination, reconciliation and our people’s future. It’s a huge backward step for our democracy,” said Congress Co-Chair Jackie Huggins.
Attacks on peaceful protest
State governments in Tasmania, Western Australia and Queensland have enacted or proposed far-reaching anti-protest laws that undermine rights to peaceful protest.
“Australians know the fundamental importance of democratic rights to gather, associate and protest. From the eight hour day to Indigenous land rights, protests have played a vital role in securing many of the rights, laws and policies Australians now enjoy and often take for granted. Governments must abandon laws that favour government and vested business interests at the expense of the democratic right to protest,” said Ged Kearney, President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions.
Undermining institutions and sidelining the courts
The Australian Government has sought to undermine the capacity and independence of the Australian Human Rights Commission, slashing its funding and engaging in belligerent political attacks on its President in response to her investigation into human rights abuses against children in immigration detention. The government has also sought to limit the ability of courts to review government conduct and publicly vilified groups who challenge it in court.
“The unprecedented attacks on the Australian Human Rights Commission are symptomatic of the trend of the Australian Government removing limits on its own power. Our independent court system provides a vital check on government yet the Australian Government is trying to sideline the courts in critical areas like immigration detention and national security. Groups that challenge government action in the courts are being vilified. Governments should promote the rule of law, not undermine it,” said Mr de Kretser.
“The right to scrutinize decision making under environmental protection laws is an important accountability mechanism that the Australian Government wants to restrict. Instead of limiting the ability of environmental groups to ensure government complies with these laws, we should be expanding it. We need to remove barriers to public interest legal action, not erect new ones,” said Brendan Sydes, CEO of Environmental Justice Australia.
Reversing the regression
The report welcomes the repeal of excessive “move on” powers by the new Victorian Government and the removal of gag clauses from funding contracts by the new Queensland Government. It outlines a range of further steps needed at both federal and state level to reverse the trend of eroding our democracy and safeguard our democracy.
The Safeguarding Democracy report