Australia is facing a “corrosive” decline in democracy as sweeping laws seek to stifle press freedom, curb community advocacy and sideline courts, according to a new report from the Human Rights Law Centre.
The report looks at the state of democracy in Australia at a time when parts of civil society are being impeded by broad state and federal laws.
Attacks on whistleblowers and press freedom, curbing peaceful protest, sidelining courts and limiting advocacy by community organisations all point to a decline in basic rights that must be arrested, said the executive director, Hugh de Kretser. It also takes aim at the government’s use of “financial levers” on advocacy groups to stifle criticism.
“Open government, a free press, a strong and diverse civil society and the rule of law are some of the vital foundations of our democracy,” he said. “Yet we are witnessing an unmistakeable trend in Australia of governments eroding these foundations with new laws and practices that entrench secrecy and stifle criticism and accountability.”
The report has made a series of recommendations to make laws fairer and ensure Australians’ rights and freedoms are protected. The recommendations include adopting a national human rights act.
It takes aim at repeated attempts to hunt down and prosecute whistleblowers and journalists sources, particularly in the area of immigration. It also criticises new secrecy laws that could result in journalists being jailed for reporting on intelligence operations, and the federal government’s mandatory data retention laws.
The Australian Press Council chair, Prof David Weisbrot, said that Australia was “going backwards” on press freedom.
“Governments are restricting access to information, fortifying secrecy laws, stifling whistleblowers and undermining the confidentiality of journalists’ sources,” he said. “A free press is essential to underpin a free and open democracy. We must reverse this trend as a matter of urgency.”
The report recommends repealing the new Australian Border Force secrecy offence and laws that could see journalists jailed for intelligence operations, as well as generally strengthening whistleblower protection laws.
The journalist Peter Greste, who was jailed in Egypt for his reporting there, said: “The government has been using national security as an excuse to erode the space that journalists are able to work in, without any apparent tangible gain in our safety, or enough vigorous public debate about the tradeoffs.”
Save the Children’s director of policy and public affairs, Mat Tinkler, said: “The secrecy surrounding our offshore processing regime means that the Australian people are forced to judge the merits of acts done in their name without all of the facts on the table, forcing whistleblowers to take matters into their own hands.”
It also targets funding cuts to the non-government organisations, including homeless and disability advocacy, and legal aid.
Cassandra Goldie, the chief executive of the Australian Council for Social Service, said savage cuts in the last two federal budgets had undermined many organisations.
“Instead of removing support for advocacy by community organisations, governments should welcome and encourage it, even when it’s uncomfortable for them,” she said.
It examines the “unprecedented political attacks” on the Australian Human Rights Commission by the federal government, particularly following its report on children held in Australia’s immigration detention network.
The government’s amendments to immigration laws to curb appeal processes are also impeding asylum seekers and others from being able to fairly seek reviews of immigration decisions. The report recommends restoring key appeal rights in legal challenges.
Planned changes to environmental laws that will reduce the ability of conservation groups to gain standing in important public interest litigation also faces criticism. The reports recommends enhances access to justice to allow parties to bring public interest cases.