Comment: Are we entering a new era of silencing dissent?
The funding cut to the Refugee Council is tantamount to
state-sponsored censorship - depriving an important voice to discuss a
complex issue that more Australians need to know about.
When the Immigration Minister Scott Morrison suddenly announced he would be cutting more than half a million dollars of funding from the Refugee Council
– funding which had already been budgeted for – the shock was
immediate. Paul Power, the Chief Executive of the council called it a
"petty and vindictive" decision. This seemed especially true as Scott
Morrison was seen to have personally intervened in order to cut the
The Refugee council hasn’t shied away from criticising the government
of its brutal treatment of asylum-seekers and refugees in the past. Its
role has been to be the voice of many within the community who are
angry about the way people seeking refuge in our country have been
treated. It’s because of this criticism that the Greens MP Sarah
Hanson-Young called the funding cut an "ideological axe", with the Opposition leader Bill Shorten saying of the cuts – "this is a government who will punish its critics."
The government however, doesn’t see it this way. To them the Refugee
Council is another advocacy group, and as such isn’t deserving of
government funding. They point to the fact that between 2001 and 2007
the organisation received no government funding and continued to perform
as it has done before. This is true – back in 2001 the then immigration
minister Phillip Ruddock cut the council’s funding. The cut was seen to
be prompted by the Tampa Affair – a time when the government acted
incredibly harshly against asylum-seekers and faced international
With this latest cut to the Refugee Council, the message
the government seems to be giving to other NGOs is this: keep you head
down and don’t speak out unless you too want to face its wrath, which
will result in funding cuts, lack of communication and reduced
involvement in policy making.
The Howard government was known for using underhanded methods to
silence its critics. As authors Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison,
uncovered in their book "Silencing Dissent",
the Howard government used "Bullying, intimidation, public denigration,
threats of withdrawal of funding, personal harassment, increased
government red tape and manipulation of the rules" against dissenters.
In a discussion paper for The Australia Institute the authors mentioned
how the Howard government used a "hostile, negative and often emotional campaign’ to undermine the credibility of NGOs".
It seems history is now repeating itself with the Abbott government.
Not only have we had some of the most vicious cuts to welfare, the
government is making massive cuts to community programs and foreign aid.
With this latest cut to the Refugee Council, the message the government
seems to be giving to other NGOs is this: keep you head down and don’t
speak out unless you too want to face its wrath, which will result in
funding cuts, lack of communication and reduced involvement in policy
The question remains, was it any better under the Labor government?
As far as NGOs are concerned the answer is yes. In 2012 Australia was one of the few countries in the world to actually increase its foreign aid.
Kevin Rudd also famously made a commitment to lift foreign aid spending
to 0.5% of the Gross National Income by 2015-16 (however, the Labor party pushed back on this commitment on a number of occasions). As far as the Refugee Council is concerned, its funding was reinstated by Kevin Rudd in 2007, despite the council criticising the Labor government when its policies negatively affected refugees.
Our current government has made its attitude towards asylum-seekers
and refugees abundantly clear. Its policies towards these groups are
some of the harshest in the world and despite the suffering these people
have already incurred the government will not be swayed from taking
so-called "tough measures" against them. It is why now more than ever we
need organisations like the Refugee Council to provide not only a
counter-argument, but to be a voice of reason in the midst of what can
often be described as hateful rabble. If voices like theirs are silenced
then we could be heading towards a dangerous era of state censorship –
and that would be bad not only for welfare groups but Australia as a