Politics and the power of collaboration

As we look to 2021, the charities sector needs to focus more on collective action, increasing our capacity to serve our communities and push back against political bias and attempts to intimidate charities or silence criticism writes CCA CEO David Crosbie in Pro Bono News.

Politics and the power of collaboration, Pro Bono News, 10 December, 2020

Times seem to have changed in politics. The NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian recently said: “Governments are there to prioritise. Whether we like it or not, we let governments prioritise, make decisions, put in policies.” She also pointed out that using tax-payer funds to provide grants for her political comrades was not illegal. Both these comments relate to a $250 million council grants scheme that enabled the premier, at her discretion, to grant money to councils supportive of her government. The premier continues to defend what most people understand is a pork barrelling scheme to increase support for targeted pro NSW government political groups in government held electorates.

The NSW premier is right, governments are required to prioritise government spending, but the prioritising is meant be grounded in the interests of the people governments serve, in this case the people of NSW, not the interests of political mates, personal friends, family, or donors who will offer support to keep the government in power. It is irrefutable that the government makes spending decisions, but when did it become acceptable that these decisions be driven by self-interest over community interest? 

The federal government has also adopted and defended this politically driven decision-making with the $102.5 million for the Community Sport Infrastructure Program, $150 million for “regional” swimming pools (including Sydney’s North Shore), and the $272 million Regional Growth Fund, just to name three grant programs that clearly involved political favouritism.

These programs have been publicly criticised, but there have been very few consequences for those involved with the notable exception of the minister who oversaw the sports grants program, Bridget McKenzie, who was forced to resign over an undeclared conflict of interest through her membership of a gun club that received funding under the scheme. It is notable that it was this personal oversight, not the minister’s politically driven decision making, that was cited as the reason for her resignation.

It is not unreasonable to suggest that politically favoured decision making about policies and allocation of funding seems to be a more accepted aspect of government decision making. Most charities already know that being on-side with a government enhances the capacity to gain access to government decision makers, to be heard, to achieve policy changes and receive government funding. 

This is not new, previous governments have practiced this kind of political favouritism in various ways, but it seems to be at a new level. The examples above and recent behaviour from the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission suggest political considerations are becoming a more prominent factor in government decision-making.

How else can you explain why the ACNC commissioner wrote to the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) suggesting it was in danger of breaching its charitable status as a result of an open letter published on the ACF website and co-signed by the ACF and thousands of health professionals? The open letter criticised the performance of the current Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction Angus Taylor and suggested he should lose his current ministerial portfolio. 

It is farcical to argue that this ACF Open Letter is about political candidature. There is no suggestion in the letter that Angus Taylor should resign from the parliament, lose his seat, or not be elected. The letter expresses the view that Angus Taylor is a poor minister for energy and emissions reduction and is not performing in that role.

The ACF regularly advocates for more effective energy and emissions reduction policies as part of its core mission and charitable purpose. The ACF may sometimes criticise the environmental policies of various politicians and candidates. Provided their focus is on their core charitable purpose, all charities are perfectly entitled by law to publicly highlight policy strengths and weaknesses with individual candidates across every area of charitable endeavour including education, health, justice, employment, housing, welfare or any other policies and issues. This is not about supporting or opposing a political candidate, it is about advancing the purpose of the charity. It is up to voters to decide if they want to vote for a particular candidate regardless of their policies. 

All charities in Australia should understand they have the legal right to advocate for and against government policies related to their charitable purpose. In fact, Australian charities enjoy some of the best legal protections for charities to advocate for their charitable purpose anywhere in the world. This did not happen by accident. Many people across the charities sector and within government worked hard to ensure the Charities Act 2013 included strong protections for charitable advocacy, and that the anti-gag clauses legislation prevents all federal government departments imposing conditions in contracts that might silence advocacy.

The ACNC commissioner’s letter to the ACNC implies he either doesn’t understand the Charities Act that he is employed to administer or is choosing to ignore the act and seeking to protect a government minister from legitimate public scrutiny and criticism. 

It is not surprising that we might see an increase in politically driven decision making given the hyper-partisan political environment and the truth-decay associated with the diffusion and politicisation of mainstream media, compounded by reduced scrutiny and transparency, superficial messaging and misinformation promoted through multiple online sources including social media.

Unfortunately, in the current political climate, it seems many charities feel intimidated by the increasingly overt pressure from governments. Some charities believe that if they are to survive, they have little choice but to accept the values the government are enacting, the rules they are setting, the reward systems they are creating. Perhaps this is now more prevalent? 

Previously I might have argued that adopting a compliant approach might provide some short-term wins, but integrity and authenticity to charitable purpose have a way of winning out in the longer term. Now, as the level of bias and political favours grow, I am more circumspect.

What is clear is the danger of isolation and the strength of collective action. A charity on its own can be intimidated by government, but the combined power of the charities sector can be quite intimidating to government.

As we begin looking forward to 2021, the focus of the charities sector needs to be more about collective action, increasing our capacity to push back against the hyper-partisan political cronyism we can expect to increase the closer we get to a federal election.

Our collective successes in 2020 provide an invaluable lesson. Through the bushfires and the pandemic, we learnt that when we act together, we can achieve remarkable outcomes. The same applies in responding to bullying, bias and attempts to intimidate and silence criticism of governments by charities. 

In 2021, collaboration will be critical to ensuring charities can effectively serve and strengthen our communities. 


Read on Pro Bono News:  politics-and-the-power-of-collaboration