Speech on Protecting Our Charities

8.15pm | March 20, 2018

A few weeks ago, the Labor Party, together with minor parties and crossbenchers, met with Hands Off Our Charities, a group representing organisations as diverse as the Uniting Church, Oxfam and the ACF. These community representatives are very concerned that the suite of bills that the government introduced to combat foreign interference will have a significant impact on their ability to join public debate and participate in civil society.

Hands Off Our Charities today put out a communique about that round table and about the three bills, which Senator Patrick has just tabled. I don't intend to address the content of these bills tonight. All three are currently before parliamentary committees—two before committees that I serve on. I don't want in any way to prejudice the work of those committees. But the charities expressed concerns about the bills that fit into a broader pattern of our behaviour that I do want to talk about: the tendency of this government to try to silence its critics.

Everyone in politics has, at some point, wished that those who disagree would just go away or see things our way. That desire is understandable. What is not understandable is the coalition's willingness to use the power of executive government and of legislation to stifle dissent. As someone who grew up in a family of Queenslanders living on the Queensland border in the 1980s, I was raised to object strenuously when governments seek to use their legislative and executive power to control their political opponents. Under Prime Ministers Abbott and Turnbull there has been a hostility to civil society. First, there was a push to prevent environmental groups from intervening in court matters. There has been talk of denying charitable status to organisations that engage in advocacy. Charities that deliver social services have been forced to sign gag clauses that prevent them from speaking out on policy issues. Civil society plays a unique and important role in public debate. But this government has been so busy protecting people's rights to be bigots that they have forgotten why free speech is important to begin with.

Hands Off Our Charities have put it pretty well in their communique. They say the people of Australia and our country's civil society need to be free to air their views, however uncomfortable for governments or for political parties. This best guarantees that our laws and policies truly support the Australian community. Democracy doesn't start in this place. It starts with free, well-informed debate in the media and around kitchen tables. This needs honest voices that are genuinely interested and will genuinely advocate for the public interest, and nothing else. In other words, we need charities, and we need our legislation to respond to that.