Speak no Evil,” by Robert Young

December 11, 2017; Guardian

This report from the Australian civil sector certainly should cause some resonance among nonprofits in the United States. The role of nonprofits as vehicles for voice in marginalized communities is essential to a healthy democracy. And if you think our democracy has some flaws, perhaps it is time to reconsider your nonprofit’s advocacy agenda.

The recent Civil Voices report published by Pro Bono Australia and the Human Rights Law Centre finds that Australian NGOs “self-silence” out of fear that dissent will bring repercussions from funders.

Coauthor Sarah Maddison said the findings were “fairly insidious.”

“We’ve moved away from the really overtly hostile period of governance of the civil society sector,” Maddison said. “Instead what we are seeing is that the sector itself has taken on board some of those concerns into a mode of operation that we’re calling self-silencing. Our once vocal, sometimes strident, advocacy sector, bringing the voice and the experience of Australia’s most marginalized communities to the fore and helping government make better policy, has been effectively silenced both by governments and now by itself.”

The report found that 69 percent of organizations believe that if they dissent, they risk having their funding cut. Additionally, 53 percent believe they are pressured to craft public statements to be in line with government policy.

Maddison said the responses showed “public debate is further limited through self-censorship because of implied repercussions stemming from fears of government funding cuts or loss of [deductible gift recipient] status” and that groups were “erring on the side of caution” when it came to advocacy, with some organizations going out of their ways to declare their neutrality or benign nature.

Emily Howie, a director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, said the Civil Voices report demonstrated the extent to which government action was undermining debate and democracy in Australia.—Ruth McCambridge