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‘Democracy is the skeleton key to progress’: Australian Democracy Network

Profile of Rebecca Bridges
Written by Rebecca BridgesPosted on 4/8/2020

Decades of experience in campaigning and advocacy have taught Saffron Zomer one very important lesson: a healthy democracy is the necessary foundation for a fairer and more sustainable Australia. In pursuit of this, Zomer is now heading up the Australian Democracy Network, a collaborative project of the Human Rights Law Centre, the Australian Conservation Foundation, and the Australian Council of Social Service.

Zomer previously worked with Hands Off Our Charities (HOOC), which received support from a number Australian Communities Foundation sub-funds. The HOOC alliance formed in 2017 when the Australian Government proposed sweeping new constraints and regulation of civil society advocacy. There was an outpouring of opposition to the reforms from charities, community groups, business groups, academics and more. Thanks to this cross-sector support and the hard work of the HOOC alliance, in November 2018 a new Bill was introduced that protected civil society’s crucial role in helping government make policy decisions that affect all Australians.

We find out from Zomer how the Australian Democracy Network came together, what key challenges lie ahead and why we need a vibrant and engaged civil society.

In 2017, you worked with the Hands Off Our Charities Alliance to protect the rights of civil society organisations to engage in advocacy. How has the advocacy landscape changed since then?

SZ: Since the pandemic began in March, advocacy has become more important than ever. The decisions we make now, about what to invest in, how to plan into the future; these will shape our society for decades to come. 

Right now, the government is spending enormous amounts of money in the interests of recovering from this crisis. Nobody expected the political context we have right now; nobody thought that we would be considering universal free childcare for example, but here we are, we need to act on this opportunity.

The Hands Off Our Charities (HOOC) alliance demonstrated, successfully, that cross-sector collaboration can shift the needle on policy issues; this is the kind of approach that will enable us to make the strategic interventions that are needed to get our democracy back on track. 

“What I came to realise is that a healthy democracy is the skeleton key to progress on all the issues; and I firmly believe that a healthy democracy is one that puts people and planet first.”

When I left the Australian Conservation Foundation about a year ago, I thought long and hard about the role that I wanted to step into and what I wanted to work on.

Everyone has an issue that is close to their heart, it’s the reason they do what they do, it’s what keeps them awake at night. For me, that’s climate. Nature has always been a solace, a source of renewal, and it is inexpressibly painful to me to watch it dying around us.

What I came to realise is that a healthy democracy is the skeleton key to progress on all the issues; and I firmly believe that a healthy democracy is one that puts people and planet first. 

Politicians – our elected leaders – they work for us, so of course they need to hear from us, and advocacy organisations are the vehicle for that. Communities know what they need, and what their hopes are for the future. Advocacy allows regular citizens, like us, to share these hopes and needs, and to have our voices heard by the people we have elected to make big decisions. 

It’s both essential and timely for Australia to have an organisation such as the Australian Democracy Network (ADN) that is focused on a vibrant Australian civil society. How will the ADN secure and protect our democratic freedoms in a post-pandemic political climate? What do you think that climate will look like?

There’s a real risk to democracy when times are tough; our political leaders tell us that we have to trade our democratic freedoms for other things, as though to say, “We don’t have the time for democracy when we have all these other important problems to deal with.” For example, the governance structures related to the National COVID-19 Commission and its appointments. This Commission is a central part of the Government’s COVID recovery planning, and will have huge influence on policy and spending priorities, yet there was no proper process for appointment, no conflicts of interest register, and no transparency around its recommendations. The members appointed to the Commission heavily over-represent one industry – gas – making it hard to feel confident in the process or the outcomes of it.

“Civil society is a critical part of a healthy democracy. We’re strengthening civil society every day through the work we do. It is about building the organisational infrastructure that supports and stands for a vibrant and engaged civil society.”

A big part of our role is to just be there, every day, to track these issues as they arise and find the best ways to explain them to the public. From there, we must hold the government to high standards of transparency and accountability and promote the solutions that make our democracy stronger. But we want to be more than reactive. 

Civil society is a critical part of a healthy democracy. We’re strengthening civil society every day through the work we do. It is about building the organisational infrastructure that supports and stands for a vibrant and engaged civil society. 

When the pandemic is behind us, we will continue to proactively work to reduce the undue influence of big corporate lobbies on our politics, and bring together powerful coalitions to protect our rights to be free from government surveillance, our right to protest and to ensure our communities have a place in the public life of the nation as active participants in our democratic process. 

What are the emerging challenges for our democracy that have come out of the pandemic? How has this affected the work of the Australian Democracy Network?

There’s huge potential in this moment to do things differently: build a carbon-free economy, revitalise our manufacturing sector, create good jobs for people, rethink how we live, devise a safety net that keeps us all out of poverty, develop a world-class health system that’s resilient to crisis; yet there is a huge risk that our government won’t do that, because our democracy currently fails to put people and planet first.

Big corporate interests are already using this crisis to push for deregulation and direct public spending to projects that enrich them. This isn’t new: ‘disaster capitalism’ describes the exploitation of a sudden crisis for private profit, it was coined by Naomi Klein her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism

Corporate power has such a huge influence over our political system that there is a real risk that corporate profits get put ahead of the common good, wasting this opportunity to do so much good. 

“Connect to your community. Join organisations and groups that advocate and stand up for the issues you care about. We are powerful together, and we learn the skills of active citizenship from each other.” 

People-powered advocacy is our best tool to make the most of this moment, and so protecting advocacy, and finding ways to build the power of our sector, has never been more important. 

From our media consumption and our choices as a consumer, to the decisions we make at work and the values we espouse around our friends and family, what do you think are the most effective ways for everyday people to advocate for and support a healthier democracy?

Connect to your community. Join organisations and groups that advocate and stand up for the issues you care about. We are powerful together, and we learn the skills of active citizenship from each other. 

“Corporate influence might be intensifying but the antidote is campaigning together and uplifting community power.” 

Whatever your issue is, go find the people who also care about it, and get to work. That’s what it looks like when you do democracy properly, it’s something we all do, not something politicians do to us. 

Corporate influence might be intensifying but the antidote is campaigning together and uplifting community power. 

This is about more than just our economic wellbeing, a healthy democracy, active citizenship and civic participation and community building are central to our mental health and wellbeing.

Beyond funding, how can the philanthropic sector best support the Australian Democracy Network?

Funding is important – let’s not forget that – none of this happens without money, it’s an essential resource for social change. However, just like in any vibrant civil society, it is our voices that matter. Philanthropy is an important voice on many of the critical issues at play today.  

I think there is immense potential in strategising together: bringing changemakers and philanthropists together to figure out how we get the outcomes we want and need in Australia. 

Right now, I think we are too often thinking about the same problems in different rooms. We need to draw on each other’s expertise to build the most effective strategies, let’s give it a try!