Criticism essential to a healthy society

The NSW Environmental Defender’s Office (EDO) is a community legal centre that assists people who identify environmental problems.

It recently advocated on behalf of the Catherine Hill Bay Progress Association and Dune Care Inc in the Land and Environment Court. There was lengthy mediation resulting in an agreement acceptable to all the parties involved.

This matter was then taken from the court system, making it a win for taxpayers as well.

It is now revealed that mining industry representatives lobbied the NSW Government to cut funding to the EDO.

Then the NSW Government announced funding cuts to the EDO.

The people invested with responsibility to act in the interest of all of us, without fear or favour, frequently appear fearful of public views.

I work in a community legal centre and like many workers in grassroots organisations I share a special interest in seeking ways that give people without a voice a say in matters that affect their daily lives.

When local progress associations, residents groups or community members want to challenge governments, corporate entities or others to protect the environment, they most likely need the free legal assistance of an EDO type agency.

Yet groups doing free environmental or social justice advocacy work are often under excessive scrutiny and at risk of losing funding.

One of many examples comes from the University of Newcastle Legal Centre that combines teaching and a legal advice service. They assisted the family of Cornelia Rau who was unlawfully detained under a government mandatory detention program. Their legal advocacy contributed to important and socially just reforms around immigration detention.

After the Rau case the then Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone forwarded 200 cases of possible wrongful immigration detention to Mick Palmer who oversaw an inquiry into the detention of Ms Rau.

Inquiries like this revealed that poor mental health, temporary confusion or having English as a second and less used language, could see bureaucratic mismanagement imprison vulnerable citizens.

It is the advocates, in a range of fields, who highlight the cracks in the system and seek necessary reforms. It is this advocacy that protects those likely to fall or be squeezed through the cracks, crushing human rights and entitlements along the way.

So why would political, corporate, civic or any other representative want to silence fair appraisal of actions that impact on community life?

If economic and political decisions are promoted as transparent and in the public interest then robust, independent scrutiny and challenges can only prove this to be true.

In reality, grassroots advocacy work improves political, economic and social policies and decision making by gaining insights that reveal institutional flaws or unfairness.

Yet we learn that a mining industry representative described advocacy for groups with concerns about mining as a ‘campaign of economic sabotage’ warranting funding cuts.

Shutting down community advocacy, particularly related to health and wellbeing, leaves the weakest in our communities without a voice and lets the powerful or those driven solely by profit unchallenged.

A healthy, accountable democracy needs all sides of every story and ways to hear from those with few personal resources.

Strong leaders are not only fearless in the face of legitimate criticism but seek out critics as a safeguard to test their executive decisions.

Grassroots advocates aim to help those without a voice. Picture: Jonathan Ng

Grassroots advocates aim to help those without a voice. Picture: Jonathan Ng


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