Image for Cash for no comment tramples free speech

Bend over and take your cuts. The headmaster is dishing out the cane to a variety of backsides, most of whom don’t deserve any punishment at all.

The law and justice community is not immune from the pounding. Front-line community legal centres (CLCs) are the latest to be whacked, with cuts ranging from 27 per cent for the Environmental Defenders Office - punishment for taking action against mining interests? - to 18 per cent for the Public Interest Advocacy Centre - punishment for a big disability case against RailCorp?

CLCs are organisations that represent the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. To a large extent they take the pressure off Legal Aid with civil and family law work and are partly funded through the Commonwealth, Legal Aid’s budget and a milch cow called the Public Purpose Fund (PPF).

Overall, the centres have received budget cuts from the PPF component of 10 per cent across the board and more for specific programs such as for training, the Aboriginal legal access service and the child support access service.

Legal Aid has also received a $10 million budget cut for next year.

What is as troubling as the shrinkage of funding for the most disadvantaged is a state government edict that whatever money is available is conditional on a cut in the free speech of the CLCs.

This little provision is set out in a government document called ‘‘Principles for Funding of Legal Assistance Services’’ and it says ‘‘funding will not include activities which may reasonably be described as political advocacy or political activism’‘. This includes lobbying, advocacy by ‘‘traditional and social media’‘, rallies and demonstrations for ‘‘causes seeking changes to government policies or laws’‘.

This affects some CLCs more than others. CLCs that are advocating law reform are much more worried about the fallout from the no lobbying, no campaigning requirements.

There are some salutary examples on hand. The south-west Sydney and Marrickville legal centres are jointly involved in a project directed at what they regard as unfair practices by private car parking operators. They say there are about 200,000 car owners who have been subject to relentless and ‘‘questionable’’ debt collection methods. To remedy the situation involves lobbying relevant government officials.

CLCs were also active in lobbying for reform of legislation affecting tenants in boarding houses. Many others have repeatedly raised concerns about injustices in the bail laws. The Illawarra Legal Centre is running a class action against the Commonwealth in relation to the alleged ineffectiveness in collecting child support and child maintenance through the Child Support Agency.

The state did request the Commonwealth add the same free speech restrictions to its funding agreements, but Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus refused.

Consequently, an attempt to run a media campaign to publicise the child support issue may not attract official reprisal.

NSW’s ‘‘principles for funding’’ follow an unhappy history of government outlays being made conditional on recipients keeping schtum. Even though Liberals have now redecorated themselves as the saviours of free speech, it was a particular device in vogue during the Howard era.

You might remember that, at one point, in order for charities to qualify for GST education and training funding, they were asked not to criticise the GST. A clause in the training contract said organisations must favourably acknowledge the contribution of the Commonwealth.

Then, in 2003, the Howard government recruited the IPA (Institute for Paid Advocacy) to do a study of welfare and aid organisations who received Commonwealth money. The government was seeking to create new requirements about ‘‘acceptability’’ for funding or tax breaks.

Then treasurer Peter Costello also raised the spectre of tax penalties for charities that offended government sensibilities.

The latest development is opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop’s campaign to turn off government dollars for individuals or organisations that speak out against Israel, specifically those who publicly support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign.

Three Australian-Jewish academics have said they deplore Ms Bishop’s ‘‘outrageous … and anti-democratic’’ policy.

The ‘‘no pay if we don’t like what you say’’ agenda is not confined to the Liberals. Late last month the Gillard government stumped up $350 million of industry help for the Tasmanian logging industry.

It is part of a restructure subsidy, compensation for displaced workers, paying out forest contracts and managing new timber reserves. All very good.

However, there is also what is known as a ‘‘durability’’ clause in the funding contract, which requires the environmental movement stop protesting about native forest logging. The Australian Financial Review drew attention to this free speech stomp, but it has gained little traction elsewhere.

Not only are the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Wilderness Society and Environment Tasmania expected to lay down their placards, but they are supposed to silence other protesters.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard said as much herself: ‘‘The obligation is on the signatories … to do everything they can to use their abilities to silence those who haven’t gone with the mainstream consensus.’‘

Richard Denniss, of the Australia Institute, says the consequence of disobedience is that if either house of the Tasmanian Parliament believes there has been a ‘‘substantial active protest’’ then forest reserve will be reopened for logging.

We’re on the threshold of an exciting new era - cash for no comment.

First published in the SMH here. Republished in full with the kind consent of the good Mr Ackland: