The question of whether the government should be funding pressure groups is one that faces politicians across the developed world. The Australian state of Queensland has decided that actions speak louder than words and is introducing a rule that says NGOs who rely on taxpayers’ money for more than 50 per cent of their income ‘must not advocate for state or federal legislative change’. The state government has justified its decision on the basis that a state-funded group should ‘conduct itself with the political impartiality of any other government sector’. It wants the health groups it funds to concentrate on core activities rather than placard-waving. ‘We want to fund outcomes but not advocacy’, said a spokesman. ‘Health outcomes, not political outcomes or social engineering outcomes.’
The reference to ‘social engineering’ is pointed and timely. In recent years, Australia has outdone even the UK in its efforts to create a super-nanny state. This month alone, antipodean advocates have called for the drinking age to be raised to 25, wine prices to be quadrupled, glassware, doubles and cocktails to be banned in bars, and incremental prohibition to be introduced for tobacco. As in Britain, anti-smoking and neo-temperance campaign groups are largely, and often wholly, funded by the state.
The decision to set a cap on the amount of public money that can be awarded to pressure groups has led to much wailing and gnashing of teeth amongst the ranks of those who campaign under the banner of ‘public health’. Tellingly, they have complained that political lobbying is their ‘core activity’ and have accused the government of trying to ‘gag’ and ‘censor’ them. They say NGOs are, by definition, not part of the government and they should not have to play by the same rules as bureaucrats.
Any political action in this area must be mindful of the threat to free speech, but the Queensland ruling is not really about censorship, rather it is about how public money is spent. Any of these groups are free to campaign on any issue, but in the future they will not be able to force the taxpayer to subsidise the bulk of their activities. If a lobby group cannot attract non-governmental funding for at least half of its income, it cannot properly be called a non-governmental organisation and it should accept that it only ever had a voice because the state gave it one. If these groups are providing public services then they are effectively part of an extended bureaucracy and should behave as such. Civil servants are expected to remain politically neutral, but nobody seriously alleges that this is tantamount to them being ‘gagged’, let alone that it is ‘a hallmark of a totalitarian regime’.
Far from being undemocratic, sensible regulation of ‘sock puppet’ lobby groups would go some way to curtailing the practice of ‘government lobbying the government’ which has done so much to subvert democracy and lock out genuine civil society. Interestingly, the Queensland government says that the new rule is aimed at ‘stopping the abuses that occurred under the previous Labor government’. Members of the British government take note. This is one Australian idea that deserves to be exported.
Christopher Snowdon is the author of Sock Puppets: How the Government Lobbies Itself and Why.