Charities and Dreamers

To realise the vision of an Australia that embraces its dreamers, we need to enhance and strengthen the role of charities and broader civil society, writes CCA CEO David Crosbie in Pro Bono News, 26 April.

Charities and Dreamers, Pro Bono News, 26 April 2018

Recent public hearings of the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry have not only highlighted the power of greed to corrupt ordinary men and women, but also revealed how destructive an “ends justify the means” organisational culture can be.  

Some of our most respected financial institutions have been shown to be incapable of addressing patterns of illegal behavior by their staff.

Trust in our banks and other financial institutions to provide us with financial advice is heading the same way as trust in our churches to protect our children from sexual abuse. Again, it is not just the crime that matters, or the incredibly destructive consequences, but the public hand washing of those who should have acted and didn’t.

The extrapolation of this denial of responsibility has been played out by government ministers who could not answer when asked why they opposed the royal commission for so long. Apparently, governments can never admit they have made a mistake or got something wrong. Where was the overdue acknowledgement of how deep seated and widespread the problems were and the many ruined lives caused by the failure to act?

I am not sure what the pollsters or the political strategists are telling our politicians, but from my outsider’s perspective, it seems clear that the “gotcha” playbook of politics is robbing our politicians of whatever moral authority they had left. Seeking to avoid the consequences of your decisions is the antithesis of leadership.

One antidote to our deplorable politics this week was the brave insightful speech given by Richard Flanagan at the National Press Club. While I did not agree with everything Richard said, our public discourse is greatly enriched when outstanding writers and thinkers choose to turn their attention to the nature of our country and our democratic institutions. Here are just four paragraphs from that speech that should make us all think about our role in our country:

“Our institutions are frayed. Our polity is discredited, and almost daily discredits itself further. The many problems that confront us, from housing to infrastructure to climate change, are routinely evaded.

“Our society grows increasingly more unequal, more disenfranchised, angrier, more fearful. Even in my home town of Hobart, as snow settles on the mountain, there is the deeply shameful spectacle of a tent village of the homeless, the number of which increase daily. We sense the rightful discontent of the growing numbers locked out from a future. From hope.

“Instead of public debate, scapegoats are offered up – the boatperson, the queue jumper, the Muslim – a xenophobia both parties have been guilty of playing on for electoral benefit for two decades. Instead of new ideas and new visions we are made wallow in threadbare absurdities and convenient fictions….

“We are not small-minded bigots. We are, as it turns out, people who care. We are people who feel and who think. Australia is not a fixed entity, a collection of outdated bigotries and reactionary credos, but rather the invitation to dream, and this country – our country – belongs to its dreamers.”   

There is a challenge in the Flanagan speech about how we might all contribute to realising the vision of an Australia that embraces our dreamers and fulfills its potential beyond the politically convenient stereotypes.

For me the answer is partly that we need to enhance and strengthen the role of charities and broader civil society – beyond governments and much of our lamentable politics.

There are four main factors that make the role of charities critical:

  1. Most charities are started by dreamers, people who believe we can and should do better. Dreamers are our future.
  2. Charities represent a leap of faith, of hope, of believing in what might be if we can work together to change things. In pursuing the possible, charities are not limited by what is.
  3. Charities are committed to fulfilling a purpose that is grounded in delivering a public benefit. Charities are not about personal gain or glory or power.
  4. Most charities not only trade in trust, but are builders of trust, understanding and compassion within communities.

In the face of declining trust, charities can breakdown the division, selfishness and lack of compassion that drives fear and a retreat into populist bigotry.  But it is not an easy task.

For charities to maintain and expand the level of trust in our communities they need to be authentic, open, inclusive, responsive and fair.  

Charity engagements with communities need to be about more than short-term gain. Prolonged engagement is often at the heart of building trust and prolonged engagement can be a difficult to achieve.  

Our actions need to reflect our values both within and outside our organisations.

Like Richard Flanagan and many others, I worry that as trust declines in our country we become increasingly vulnerable to a more authoritarian, less inclusive leadership where the needs of the most powerful are met, and dreamers are not welcomed.  We have seen this pattern play out in several countries in recent years.

At a time when trust in our institutions and our governments is plumbing new depths, the role of charities in Australia has never been more important.  

This week has again highlighted that the Australia we want will not be delivered to us by our political leaders, we will need to work for it.