Going, going, gone: dismantling the progressive state

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By Himelfarb, Alex’s blog, 17 April 2012

The Budget also takes aim at another essential ingredient of a strong democracy, the charitable sector. Essential to civil society are the many non-governmental organizations that give voice to people otherwise not heard, including future generations who will inherit the consequences of what we decide. These organizations, which so often challenge and criticize, are never much loved by governments. They always struggle for survival. Decades ago governments decided to stop core funding, to limit funding to the purchase of services, to make it hard for charitable organizations to engage in advocacy. But they survived, even if weaker. This budget and some of the chilling rhetoric around it takes the next step, as environmentalists are treated as a bigger problem than climate change and non-governmental organizations are warned that they better be careful about their advocacy if they want the advantages of charitable status. This and the cut to the small but effective Court Challenges Program in a previous budget rob our democracy of the dissenting voices that give it strength. Remembering this cut is yet another way to acknowledge the anniversary of the Charter and the essential role it and an independent judiciary continue to play in creating the progressive state.

If there is not much more to a country than the market, individual interests, and local communities, and the territory within which all that takes place, then citizenship and civil society lose much of their meaning. Little wonder that Margaret Thatcher proclaimed that there is no such thing as society. Little wonder that we ask so little of our citizens and provide less and less in return. But this hollowing-out of citizenship and civil society leads to an impoverished democracy in which we vote every once in a while if we so choose and otherwise retreat to our lives as consumers, producers andprivate citizens. This leads to something of a paradox. With the weakening of civil society, we demand less of our governments and demand that government interfere less. Instead we are on our own and we look to government to protect us and our community and our territory from terrorists and criminals. But with the hollowing-out of civil society it becomes harder to constrain government, to protect civil and human rights when government does act, and so, in the end, government becomes more powerful and less accountable.

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