Community groups must be free to advocate for the people they serve. It’s these people who see first-hand if ideas dreamt up in Wellington actually work on the ground. It’s essential that they can speak freely and tell the public about the real impact of government policy, if it’s working, if things are really improving, or if nothing is really happening.
On the weekend National Party Minister Alfred Ngaro threatened to cut a community organisation’s funding if people involved in that organisation spoke out against National Party policy during the election. National quickly moved to paint Ngaro as an aberration, the exception to the rule. Steven Joyce described his comments as “naive” and Bill English said he would audit Ngaro’s previous decisions for “political motivations”. Unfortunately Ngaro isn’t the exception in the National Party.
He was naïve, but mostly because he made the political mistake of giving voice to what appears to be acceptable behaviour in the National Party. Ngaro was simply reminding people that this is how the National Party response to criticism from people who depend on public funding.
In 2009, two solo mums spoke out against National’s decision to cut training allowances. In response the then Social Development Minister Paula Bennett released private information about their personal incomes, including government funded benefits and allowances they had received. It was a clear abuse of power. Bennett has access to private information of thousands of New Zealanders receiving government support and she sent a clear message to them all – don’t speak out against government policy.
In 2014 the National Government withdrew funding from the Problem Gambling Foundation after it was critical of National giving Sky City Casino more pokies in exchange for a new convention centre. Again, National used its position of power to send a clear message to those who might try to criticise it – do so and it will cost you.
In 2014 Victoria University study found that 15 percent of surveyed Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) had funding agreements with government that explicitly stated they must not make public comment on government policies and action. The same research showed around 30 percent of surveyed NGOs thought debate was silenced under the National Government.
Prime Minister Bill English said yesterday that NGOs are “always free” to speak out about government policy. If the PM is sincere about this, then he should commit to removing restrictions in government contracts with NGOs that currently prevent them from commenting on or critiquing government policy.
A free society is one where ideas can be debated and criticism is encouraged. Fundamentally, we cannot fix problems like homelessness, domestic violence, problem gambling and poverty if we’re not allowed to hear about them. If National cannot commit to a culture change in the wake of Alfred Ngaro’s comments, then we need to change the government.
The Greens in government will listen to the good, the bad and the ugly. We will change the Charities Act to ensure NGOs are encouraged rather than penalised for their advocacy. We will remove the clauses in NGOs’ contracts that prevent them commenting on government policy and research. We will listen to organisations that agree with us and those that don’t, we will get a wide range of views, we will be non-defensive, and we will welcome the debate.