Why Australia needs more noisy charities!

Governments might not like noisy charities – but without them Australia would be a much less healthy, safe and prosperous country, writes CCA CEO David Crosbie in Pro Bono News, 7 November 2019.

Why Australia needs more noisy charities!  Pro Bono News, 7 November 2019

Governments generally dislike noisy charities, the kinds of charities that highlight injustice, inadequacy, environmental degradation, ethical inconsistencies, failures and unmet needs. But without noisy charities Australia would be a much less healthy, safe and prosperous country.

While there have always been ebbs and flows in relationships between governments and charities, one consistent theme is a form of paternalistic imbalance, where governments are the keepers of the money, the maker of rules, the all-powerful arbiter of which charities they will bestow their approval upon.

Most charities go along with this relationship, not because it is enjoyable or even productive, not even because it means money for their organisation, but because accepting unequal terms is the price to be paid if the communities that the charities serve are going to benefit through receiving government support and funding.

The new and somewhat disappointing development in this relationship is that governments now seem more comfortable openly criticising charities for advocating on issues, and are now talking about laws to silence charities, to reduce their capacity to advocate for their charitable purpose.

Our current prime minister has partly built his brand around wanting to serve the “quiet Australians”. In recent weeks this theme has been ramped up to include protecting economic interests. The prime minister has condemned “progressives” for telling people “where to live, what job you can have, what you can say and what you can think – and tax[ing] you more for the privilege of all of those instructions.” He also called out environmental protestors, shareholder activists and those who engage in boycotting companies doing business with coal mining companies:

“A new breed of radical activism is on the march. Apocalyptic in tone, brooks no compromise, all or nothing. Alternative views not permitted….

“There is no place for economic sabotage dressed up as activism. But there is a third and even more worrying development. An escalating trend towards a new form of secondary boycotts in this country. This is a trend with potentially serious consequences for our economy.

“Together with the Attorney General Christian Porter, we are working to identify a series of mechanisms that can successfully outlaw these indulgent and selfish practices that threaten the livelihoods of fellow Australians…”

It is important to note that there are already many laws covering what you can or cannot do when protesting and there are quite strong laws covering secondary boycotts of companies. 

The Fraser government established laws against secondary boycotts back in the 70’s mainly to curb union power. The Howard government also passed laws allowing for court action to be brought against those involved in secondary boycotts. This was a Peter Costello-led bill primarily targeted at an animal welfare group (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) that was boycotting companies involved in skinning sheep to get their wool. There is no evidence in anything the prime minister has said that we need new or additional legislation. 

The prime minister seems particularly concerned about activists disrupting businesses and undermining our economy. 

I find it difficult to support any argument that puts economic interests at the pinnacle of public benefit. Contrary to the assumptions in the prime minister’s speech, the disruption of economic interests is often necessary to ensure safe and flourishing communities. 

As the current and recent royal commissions into banking, sexual abuse of children, aged care, and disability have all highlighted, where achievement and retention of wealth is the predominant goal it can become the driver of systemic failure, abuse, neglect and injustice. 

Would any of the recent royal commissions have happened without some noisy Australians, without charities and other groups raising their concerns, without some form of activism? It took people with courage and values to push for change. Is it “economic sabotage” to demand that a bank stop charging fees to dead people, to demand recompense for the systemic sexual abuse of children, to ask a for-profit aged care provider to reduce their profitability by employing more properly trained staff? Does anyone seriously believe unconstrained license to pursue economic interests without being held to account would be good for Australia? 

I also do not agree with the premise that those being noisy are not the Australians we should be listening to or serving. In most areas of life, winners do not complain. When you are benefitting from the existing system, why disrupt it? There are exceptions of course. Some rich and powerful people use their wealth to become very noisy about their own interests (think Clive Palmer or Rupert Murdoch), but the reality is that people faced with structural inequality and injustice are more likely to have something legitimate to complain about. Not acknowledging these people or their concerns, choosing instead to serve those who already have power and capacity, is at odds with the broader interests of our communities. 

If we want to talk about quiet winners in Australia with little to complain about, it is hard to go past the mining, banking and insurance industries. Governments should not be seeking to offer these powerful companies additional protection. They are pretty good at prosecuting their own self-interest. As Menzies argued in his famous Forgotten People speech about the need for governments to avoid pandering to powerful economic interests: 

“I exclude at one end of the scale the rich and powerful: those who control great funds and enterprises, and are as a rule able to protect themselves – though it must be said that in a political sense they have as a rule shown neither comprehension nor competence. But I exclude them because in most material difficulties, the rich can look after themselves.”

Anyone who has studied history understands that ratbags change the world, often for the better. There are many people I strongly disagree with. I may wish they would shut-up, but I would never wish to have laws that silence them because that would end one of the great strengths of Australia; our capacity to both give and receive criticism, to disagree, to speak openly about injustice or unfairness, to make a case, to argue for that case and seek support for change. 

Within the free speech dialogue, I believe there are few groups more important than charities. Unlike business, charities seek to pursue a charitable purpose, to deliver a public benefit. Charities are driven by values and a commitment to serve others. Their focus is on issues of concern to many across a very diverse range of communities.

Charities will rightly oppose any laws that are about protecting selfish economic interests and restricting the capacity of charities to highlight issues and advocate for public benefit.

Surely we have learnt something from the recent royal commissions. We need fairer communities, not ones where economic self-interest dominates. We need leadership that is about community interests, not just increasing company profits. Most importantly, we need more noisy charities, not less. 

Read on Pro Bono News: why-australia-needs-more-noisy-charities