Academic journal article Social Alternatives

The Politics of NGOs: Empowering Marginal Groups in a Climate of Micro-Management and Distrust

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

The Politics of NGOs: Empowering Marginal Groups in a Climate of Micro-Management and Distrust

Article excerpt

The role of peak NGOs in Australian civil society is considered crucial for representing marginal groups in the public and policy arena. The Howard government had particularly challenged the advocacy, coordination, information, research and policy role of peak NGOs. Instead of dealing with NGOs, the Howard government developed a 'governing through communities' process establishing new arrangements between the Federal government and local communities. It is of concern that 'governance through communities' may directly erode the values of voluntary association, broad representation of diverse groups in society and may negate non-instrumental political relations that NGOs aim to contribute to a healthy democracy. How the new Rudd government relates to peak NGOs is thus worthy of close analysis to understand what democratic role especially peak NGO's will play in Australian civil society,.


There is broad consensus that non-government organisation's (NGOs) roles in Australia and their relation to the Howard government drastically altered since 1996 (Melville 2003; Hamilton 2004; Smyth 2004; Kent 2006). NGOs relationships with the Federal government were under considerable strain, as the Howard government emphasised the contractual service delivery role of non-government organisations and sought to severely limit the advocacy role of all NGOs (Melville 2003, Hamilton 2004, Smyth 2004, NCOSS 2004, Kent 2006). NGOs are defined for the purposes of this article as showing the following characteristics: being non-profit or a non-profit-distributing organisation (meaning no one profits from the activities of the agency and only staff are paid for their work in the agency), self governing usually through some kind of representative community management group, relying to some extent on volunteers and having an advocacy function representing marginal groups in society (Phillips 2004, 1). Some well-known examples of NGOs are the Red Cross, Brotherhood of St Lawrence, Community Aid Abroad, Australian Council of Social Services, Amnesty International, Women's and Men's groups and refugee advocates (Hamilton 2004,1-5). '[T]here are some 100,000 incorporated NGOs in Australia with a further 13,500 that are either collectives or companies with limited guarantee' (Lyons 1999, 2), involving 1.5 million volunteers in Australia (ABS 2000).

NGOs are generally understood to play a 'critical political role because when they 'speak directly to public need and lead collectivities to devise effective solutions to public problems', they can overcome 'cynicism and distrust' that tends to stifle civil society and political engagement (Frumkin 2002, 29). NGOs worldwide have come under criticism from neo-liberal governments, public choice theorists and right-wing Think Tanks for not being democratic (Staples 2006). The most significant attack on NGOs has been on their role as policy advocates for the poor and marginalised in society. The advocacy role of NGOs was attacked by public choice theorists, such as the Institute of Public Affairs who referred to various NGOs as 'selfish1 and 'self-serving'. This right-wing Think Tank, the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) in Melbourne was then commissioned by the Howard government to carry out an 'audit' on how NGOs relate to government departments (Hamilton 2004, 5; Staples 2006). Smyth responded to the IPA portrayal of NGOs as a threat to our democracy by pointing out the various ways in which the Howard government built the 'silencing of dissent' into the contracts between NGOs and the Federal government (2004,1). Smyth advocated that NGOs contributed important diverse opinions and advocacy in the policy and civil society sphere and that without them the political debate in Australia missed out on a broader range of views, especially the voices of the marginalised and poor.

Restricting advocacy

The relationship between NGOs and the Howard Government in relation to NGOs advocacy and policy work had 'completely broken down', according to Melville (2003, iv), for several reasons. …

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