Australian civil society and the C20: now isn’t the time to be polite

What role can civil society organisations have on the agenda of the G20, which Australia is president of this year? AAP/Dan Himbrechts

One of the many preparatory events leading up to the G20 Leaders Summit in Australia later this year is the C20 Summit, which will begin in Melbourne on Thursday. The C20 – or Civil Society 20 – aims to provide:

… a platform for dialogue between the political leaders of G20 countries and representatives of civil society organisations.

The first meeting of civil society organisations prior to a G20 summit was held in Toronto in June 2010. The purpose of the meeting was to gain understanding of the G20 agenda and to strengthen strategic connections ahead of G20 meetings in South Korea, France and Mexico.

The C20 deliberations are now an integral part of the broader G20 agenda: a process first established during the Russian G20 presidency in 2013. Chaired by Reverend Tim Costello, the 2014 C20 summit involves more than 60 leaders from across the spectrum of Australian civil society addressing the themes of Inclusive Growth and Employment; Infrastructure; Climate and Sustainability; and Governance.

In preparation for its Melbourne summit, the C20 organising committee reached out via its crowdsourcing platform C20 Conversations to help shape civil society’s recommendations to the G20.

The C20 is clearly focused on the state of the global economy. Nevertheless, in Australia’s first year as G20 president, it is timely to question where is Australian civil society at.

With a government that believes in stepping back, will civil society step up? Or will competition for a share of a shrinking funding pie lead civil society leaders to jostle for position at the table by playing nice with government?

In the face of a tough budget and growing anxiety about the as-yet unreleased findings of the welfare review conducted by former Mission Australia CEO Patrick McClure, civil society organisations might need to join forces and be a bit less civil.

What is civil society?

In 1998, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan labelled civil society as “the new superpower”. It was a big claim to make. The reality has been that in the last few years, civil society has become something of a buzzword – some would argue a “weasel word” – co-opted by political thinkers from the left and the right.

The Cameron government in the UK has captured the term, jettisoning “Third Sector” in favour of “civil society”, which is now freighted with ideological baggage and inextricably tied to “Big Society”. In Australia, the Abbott government has eschewed the term “not-for-profit sector” – seen as belonging to Labor – in favour of “civil society”, possibly to sugar coat the small government, “end of the age of entitlement” message.

In a 2012 speech in which he outlined his vision of civil society, then-shadow human services minister Kevin Andrews evoked Edmund Burke’s “little platoons”, neither created nor controlled by the state, that:

… foster competence and character in individuals, build social trust, and help children become good people and good citizens.

Consistent with such a view, government should be small and non-intrusive and civil society should stand apart, and on its own two feet.

As social services minister, Andrews reiterated his views in an address at this month’s Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) conference. He emphasised civil society’s role in “developing civic virtue and community responsibility and the importance of maintaining its independence from state control”, adding that:

… too much intervention denies citizens the opportunity to achieve something for themselves.

Clearly, for Andrews, virtuous citizens are civic-minded, economically productive and self-reliant, and well-behaved.

In the eyes of government, civil society is most virtuous when the focus of its advocacy lies elsewhere, such as in the developing world. The actions of civil society seem to diminish in virtue – in the minds of politicians – when turned on the regimes in which they are situated. Then, civil society is seen more as an irritant.

ACOSS CEO Cassandra Goldie recently raised concerns that the Abbott government was sending a strong signal that civil society “should be silent”, referring to statements by immigration minister Scott Morrison that public funds should not be used for advocacy.

Kevin Andrews wants a society were virtuous citizens are civic-minded, economically productive and self-reliant, and well-behaved. AAP/Alan Porritt

Are ‘creative coalitions’ possible?

During his recent visit to Australia, former World Trade Organisation Director Pascal Lamy called for the creation of “creative coalitions” in the form of multi-stakeholder partnerships between business, civil society and government:

… to prompt deeper change, learning and practical action.

However, it is not clear that the Abbott government is prepared to seize opportunities to engage constructively with civil society. Nor is it clear that Australian civil society organisations are sufficiently mature to engage constructively and effectively with government or with business to address pressing – and complex – policy problems.

Civil society speaks with many voices, and some voices are more equal than others, to paraphrase Orwell. Many consider that the marketisation of public services over the past two decades has had a corrosive effect on collegiality within parts of civil society. As in the business sector, money talks in civil society.

Gains in both “voice” and policy influence have been greatest for large, national, highly professionalised and more “corporate” social service organisations – what we might call “Big Charity”. Big Charity also understands that its capacity to exert influence on policy is proportionate to its willingness to be “civil” in its dealings with government.

The road ahead

Australians have never been more dependent on a major part of civil society – the Australian not-for-profit sector – for services, and governments have never been so dependent on the organisational capacity of not-for-profits to deliver their policies.

Although this sector has serious collective clout, its willingness and capacity to act collectively is not strongly supported by evidence.

In 2012, the Lowy Institute’s Danielle Cave warned that if aid NGOs failed to engage strategically with the future of the aid program, it would be at their own peril. She said it would only be “when the money stops that the thinking starts”.

The federal budget and the McClure welfare review signals that the money will soon stop flowing for many civil society organisations. Now it is time for civil society leaders to start thinking. It is time to put aside the internal sector politics, join forces and stop playing nice.

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