Freedom of Speech for Sale
If the charity sector accepts government restrictions on its public voice, it will be a sad day for Australian democracy and it will mean that free speech is for sale in Australia, writes David Crosbie, CEO of Community Council for Australia in Pro Bono News, 20 July 2017:
The proposal to prohibit any form of advocacy during election campaigns by charities that receive foreign donations, and the recent request from the Register of Environmental Organisations for environmental charities to provide details of their “on the ground remediation work” (as opposed to advocacy activities) are both measures that will reduce the public voice of charities.
They also reflect a more primitive Australia where money is power, and where the disempowered pay a price for freedom of speech.
Former Australian prime minister Sir Robert Menzies said in 1942: “The whole essence of freedom is that it is freedom for others as well as for ourselves: freedom for people who disagree with us as well as for our supporters; freedom for minorities as well as for majorities. Here we have a conception which is not born with us but which we must painfully acquire. Most of us have no instinct at all to preserve the right of the other fellow to think what he likes about our beliefs and say what he likes about our opinions. The more primitive the community the less freedom of thought and expression is it likely to concede. All things considered, the worst crime of fascism and its twin brother, German national socialism, is their suppression of free thought and free speech.”
The restrictions on the rights of charities to exercise their free speech and advocate for or against government policy, or even to oppose environmental degradation, are a real challenge to the capacity of charities to pursue their purpose and represent the communities they serve.
The proposed new policies to restrict the voice of charities will be welcomed by some of Australia’s most powerful vested economic interests, but there is no evidence they serve community interest or reflect good policy.
The most influential lobbyists in Canberra include the Pharmacy Guild of Australia. In the latest federal budget the guild managed to get an additional $800 million on top of the $4 billion a year paid to an anonymous group of less than 5,000 pharmacy owners (pharmacy staff, including pharmacists, are often paid relatively low wages).
The guild can restrict the supply of medications and dictate who can open a pharmacy and where. Alternative, more free market based models, like having trained pharmacists within supermarkets, operate successfully in New Zealand and elsewhere around the world. While they clearly increase accessibility of medications and would reduce government expenditure, their adoption in Australia is blocked by the guild who have a $100 million fighting fund to protect their lucrative position.
There are other influential lobby groups that are very good at prosecuting the economic interests of their members. One of them is the Minerals Council of Australia.
In February this year, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull appointed Sid Marris, formerly at the Minerals Council of Australia and a News Corp bureau chief, as an adviser on “climate change, energy and resources policy”.
In a powerful quarterly essay titled The Long Goodbye, Anna Krien described the way the mining industry not only contributed to the demise of prime minister Kevin Rudd and ended the mining tax, but also now employs many key former government ministers and their staffers from all sides of politics.
“Australia has a political system captured by the fossil-fuel industry. It is a political Stockholm syndrome built on donations, royalties, taxes and threats (Rudd’s fate still looms large).The vast pensions given to politicians on their retirement were premised on the idea that being a civic representative, making the hard decisions, could lead one to become professionally untouchable. Instead, Parliament has become a transit lounge for politicians and their staffers on the way to fossil-fuel companies and their lobby groups. Inertia is the result.” (Anna Krien)
Krien points out the very effective use of money and lobbying power by big business in critical areas of public policy including public health and the environment.
While governments talk about the supposed “foregone revenue costs” of providing limited tax relief for donations to DGR charities, they never talk about the huge amount of foregone business tax revenue associated with the inflated business expenditure for political advocacy and the underwriting of peak bodies like the Minerals Council of Australia.
I do not agree with many of the policy positions advocated by Clubs Australia, the Brewers Association, the Wine Federation of Australia, the Australian Grocery Council, and many other well-funded business advocacy groups that appear to me to put profit before people. Despite my opposition to their views, I would never seek to restrict their capacity to exercise their voice, their freedom of thought and freedom of speech.
As Sir Robert Menzies and many others have argued, the strength of our democracy is about encouraging and supporting the right to free speech. We do not get to control or restrict the rights of others to criticise, to oppose, or to be a problem for us.
History tells us that it is often the ratbags, the difficult ones, those who challenge the prevailing view, that are the real champions of change. These trouble-makers are at the heart of our democracy precisely because they are difficult, because they ensure our decision making is accountable.
Free speech should never be for sale to the highest bidder. The Minerals Council of Australia should not be able to tell environmental groups what activities they need to engage in if they want to be able to retain charitable or DGR status. A medical research institute that receives funding from the Bill Gates Foundation should not have to shut up during election campaigns and not highlight the need for more medical research funding.
Charities exist because the community wants them to exist. Charities have satisfied a public benefit test to obtain their concessions from the government. Charities are very accountable for their activities through a well-functioning regulator. There are already many controls over charities that extend beyond compliance with the law, and significant restrictions on their capacity to engage in political activities.
Communities want their charities to be advocates, to raise their voices, to represent those who do not have the capacity to influence policies. Unlike Gina Rinehart, most of us do not have the means to fly government ministers and their partners around the world so they can attend private family functions with international leaders, or offer massive salaries to parliamentarians and their staff after they have served in office. None of us could write off such expenses against our taxable income.
Some in government are opposed to charities publicly campaigning or exercising their free speech, especially when the charities involved receive government tax concessions or donations from international philanthropy. They want to put a price on freedom of speech.
If the charities sector accepts this restriction of their public voice, it will be a sad day for Australian democracy. It will mean that free speech is for sale in Australia.