CIVICUS interview with Emily Howie (HRLC)

Emily HowieEmily Howie, director of advocacy and research at the Human Rights Law Centre in Australia speaks to CIVICUS about civic space challenges in her country. The Human Rights Law Centre protects and promotes human rights in Australia and in Australian activities overseas through legal action, advocacy, research and capacity building.

1. How would you describe the state of civic space and the environment for civil society in Australia today? 

In Australia there is a widening discrepancy between the government’s purported support for “freedoms” and the reality of laws and practices that stifle free speech, association and peaceful assembly. 

For civil society, it has become more risky, and sometimes even unlawful, to publicly scrutinise or discuss some government action or to protest against the activities of vested corporate interests. Governments have introduced measures to stifle, silence and intimidate dissenting voices, to threaten whistle-blowers with prosecution, to restrict peaceful protest and assembly, and to diminish the advocacy potential of non-government organisations by imposing funding pressures.

Australia’s actions at home are inconsistent with our international rhetoric. Australia co-sponsored the 2013 UN Human Rights Council resolution on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. That resolution recognised the critical importance of civil society organisations to the promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

2. What are major drivers of the curtailment of democratic dissent in the country? 

The curtailment of dissent in Australia is driven by a range of issues, but in large part by the Australian government’s wish to limit scrutiny of its harsh refugee policies, the protection of vested corporate interests against environmental protests, and over-broad responses to the threat of terrorism. 

In the absence of national protection of human rights in Australia – we have neither comprehensive constitutional or legislative protection – government action can limit many basic democratic freedoms without oversight by the courts.

(i) Australia’s harsh treatment of refugees

Australia has taken increasingly harsh measures to prevent asylum seekers from seeking Australia’s protection by boat, including mandatory detention of arrivals in immigration detention centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Two men have died in connection with the Papua New Guinea centre, and there are numerous reports of rape and abuse of other detainees, including children.

Those who seek to reveal what is happening inside the offshore immigration detention centres have been subject to political attacks and may even face jail. 

The President of the Australian Rights Commission was subject to unprecedented, public, ministerial-level attacks on her integrity, impartiality and credibility after the Commission published its inquiry exposing the abuse of migrant children in Australia’s immigration detention facilities. The Attorney-General also sought to procure her resignation. 

The federal Government has also referred a number of journalists to the federal police in a bid to uncover the confidential sources of immigration detention stories. The government also referred workers employed by NGO Save the Children to the federal police in connection with suspected whistleblowing over harm to children in immigration detention.

Most recently, in June 2015, the government passed a new law that limits transparency and accountability at detention centres. The new law allows for sentences of two years jail to be imposed on doctors, teachers and social workers employed in detention centres who disclose confidential information, including abuse.

(ii) Limiting protest, advocacy and activism

Environmental groups have recently come under increasing scrutiny and pressure, mainly in response to their protest against coal and other fossil fuel projects in Australia. In March 2015, the federal government initiated a federal parliamentary inquiry into the Register of Environmental Organisations which is examining environmental NGOs’ eligibility for tax deductibility. These types of tax concessions are essential to many groups’ ability to receive and use resources, and therefore to their existence and effective operations.  The political context of the inquiry, including hostile statements made by several MPs, raises concerns that the inquiry is a vehicle to stifle important voices in the environmental movement.

Funding pressures aren’t limited to environmental organisations. The Australian government is imposing a range of funding levers to restrict or stifle the advocacy of civil society by: imposing clauses in Australian government funding agreements with community legal centres that prohibit funding from being used on “policy and law reform” work; and cutting funds to prominent advocacy organisations such as the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, the Refugee Council of Australia and the Environmental Defenders Offices. The government is sending a message to NGOs that receive government funding – if you speak out, you risk losing your funding.

This broader trend of intimidating dissenting voices is also evident in new anti-protest laws at the state level. In 2014, Tasmania made it a criminal offence to protest against, including to “hinder”, business activities or operations of mining, resource and forestry companies. Three UN Special Rapporteurs warned that this law could silence legitimate and lawful protest, is disproportionate and targets environmental protesters.

(iii) The impact of counter-terror laws

The threat of terrorism has been invoked to justify the introduction of excessive and overbroad laws that limit free speech. 

In October 2014, the Australian government passed new laws that punish, through terms of 5 to 10 years imprisonment, those who leak or publish certain security and intelligence information, even information that may be vital for the exercise and protection of human rights, accountability and democratic governance (ASIO Act 1979 (Cth)). The Government relied on the protection of national security to justify the laws. However, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights concluded that the provisions do not adequately protect the public interest in public reporting of matters. 

3. How are civil society groups responding to the challenges?

Civil society groups are responding in a range of ways, depending on the extent of their government funding. Some groups, particularly those that receive government money, are effectively silenced, wary of rocking the boat and losing their funding. Others are speaking out loudly.  

Environmental NGOs are busy responding to the parliamentary inquiry into their tax status.

The Human Rights Law Centre is documenting the impact of this declining trend in democratic freedoms in Australia and will publish a report on it later this year. 

4. What support can regional and international civil society groups provide to colleagues in Australia? 

We are keen to hear from other groups about how they have responded to similar pressures in their national agenda. The Canadian experience seems particularly relevant to what is happening here. It would be great to learn from the experience of organisations elsewhere – how they resisted government limitations on dissent, what lessons they learned from that experience, what worked and what didn’t work.