United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders, Michel Forst, has warned of the erosion of democratic freedoms in Australia and a climate of “fear, censorship and retaliation,” among community organisations and human rights activists.

Mr Forst met with whistle-blowers, government officials, and various community and business groups before releasing his preliminary findings on Tuesday 18 October.

He said he was “astonished” by the cumulative impact of government measures that are damaging civil society and stifling advocacy. Areas of concern include the defunding of peak organisations that have been critical of government policy, the intensification of secrecy laws including the Border Force Act, unprecedented anti-protest laws, and the public vilification of human rights defenders by senior government officials. 

Mr Forst met with organisations working with vulnerable and disadvantaged Australians, including Aboriginal legal centres, homelessness shelters, women’s refuges, and services supporting women fleeing domestic violence. He observed that these organisations are “indispensable” to effective policy making, providing expert advice and a voice for marginalised groups.

Despite this, Mr Forst reported that Australian governments frequently fail to consult with community organisations on important policy decisions. Gag clauses, short-term contracts and the spectre of funding cuts are having a chilling effect on advocacy and contributing to an environment of self-censorship.

Mr Forst also noted that cuts to legal assistance services are restricting access to justice for people on low incomes and preventing community legal centres from providing systemic advocacy.

“The Special Rapporteur's findings should be a wake-up call to Australian governments”, said St Vincent de Paul Society National Council CEO, Dr John Falzon, who met with Mr Forst in Canberra on Tuesday.

“Governments are using a range of funding levers that are making it harder for community organisations to speak out, and this is damaging the health of our democracy.” 

According to Dr Falzon, an independent and vibrant community sector is essential to a healthy civil society – giving voice to those who fall through the cracks, holding governments to account, and providing impetus to social change. Yet the capacity of community organisations and individuals to provide this crucial accountability and advocacy role is being eroded.

“The push to increase competition in social services is also having a corrosive effect, placing pressure on organisations to downgrade advocacy and compete for contracts that are often funded at below-cost,” said Dr Falzon.

“It is vital that the Australian Government use the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations as a blueprint for reversing this damaging trend and ensuring that there is a free and flourishing environment for political engagement and advocacy”.

 

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