Charities, power and politics

If we are to build the kind of Australia we want to live in, it is now, during the lead up to the next election that charities need to be actively advocating for themselves, their causes and their communities, writes CEO David Crosbie in Pro Bono News.


Charities, power and politics, Pro Bono News, 8 April 2021

“The vote is a power, a weapon of offense and defense, a prayer.” – Carrie Catt, 19th century suffragette leader.

It is highly likely that the coming federal budget will be the last Morrison budget before an election. At this stage most experts predict the election will be held within the next six months and the result will probably come down to a handful of seats. While the politics of the day and the latest polling may appear positive or negative for one side of politics or the other, it can take a lot more than a few headlines to push people into changing their voting behaviour.

We know for certain we are going to have a new Liberal/National party government or a new ALP government in power within the next 12 months. What will this mean for charities?

While charities are not party-political players, the outcome of a federal election can determine the sustainability of many charities and the work they do. 

CCA has spent many years advocating for policies that will strengthen the charities sector now and into the future. There was a time, not all that long ago, when governments and oppositions made no mention of charities in pre-election policy statements.

It is important to acknowledge that in Australia now both sides of politics would claim to be supportive of charities and to have developed policies that will directly benefit the sector.

The commitment made by the current government to offer a more accessible form of JobKeeper to charities across Australia was undoubtedly one of the most important government initiatives for many charities over the past 18 months. The support for philanthropy to be able to give more during the pandemic was also important. The increase in support for other countries in our region has rightly been welcomed by many. The willingness of so many government departments to roll over funds and adapt contracts and reporting requirements was critical for the survival of many charities. Additional support for frontline services enabled many people to be fed and housed, despite all the challenges Australia was facing. In many ways, the government listened to charities and responded positively, especially at the beginning of the pandemic.

The negative with the current government has been more about the lack of investment in the potential of the charities sector to improve both productivity and well-being. The listening that was happening 12 months ago has faded as the government pursues a limited agenda. In critical areas like the NDIS, social housing, unemployment benefits, refugees, aged care, etc. the government seems to be running an agenda that is separate to what communities want or need. At a sector-wide level, changes in government regulations and policy seem to happen very slowly if they happen at all.

While the current government seems to have limited appetite for much needed charity reforms, last week the ALP National Conference endorsed a 10-point plan to strengthen charities. The importance of having this plan incorporated into the ALP National Platform cannot be overstated. It is the blueprint for an incoming ALP federal government, a priority setting document that indicates what an ALP government would invest their time and resources in.

Each of the 10 measures in the ALP plan are deserving of more discussion. They are framed by the language of partnership for a better Australia and represent a strong set of policy priorities that CCA supports. They include establishing a forum within government to advance charity reform, revisiting the 2010 Productivity Commission Report recommendations for the sector most of which have not been implemented, fixing fundraising regulations, longer-term planning and more sustainable contracting of services, addressing the digital divide for charities, increased support for volunteers and a commitment to support public advocacy by charities for their issues.

The current government has yet to develop a clear forward agenda for the charities sector. CCA and the charities sector now have an opportunity to seek matching commitments from the government prior to the next election.

The regulatory, taxation and funding environment in which charities have to function is critical in enabling charities to best serve their communities. There are many areas where change is long overdue and more support is needed, but within the current political context there are few avenues to gain that support. 

Elections represent a critical opportunity for advocacy by charities for their causes and their communities. They are also an opportunity to make the work of charities less difficult and the future a little more secure.

Seizing the opportunities inherent in the next federal election will require more collaboration and collective pressure on all political candidates.

The most important asset the charities sector has is its reach into almost every home and every community across Australia. Not only do 1.3 million people work in charities, a further 4 million volunteer for a charity or a not for profit. Independent of all the people working or volunteering for charities, there are millions more who directly benefit from the contribution charities make to their lives and their communities.

If we are to build the kind of Australia we want to live in, it is now, during the lead up to the next election as political parties lock in their forward priorities that charities need to be actively advocating for themselves, their causes and their communities.

The art of politics is to get elected. 

If political parties choose not to prioritise the issues that matter to charities, we should vote against them, and given our size and our reach across Australia, the capacity of charities and their supporters to influence the outcome of elections is formidable.

Charities not only have a voice, they also carry many votes. It is now time to ensure all politicians know that we will be using our voices and our votes to ensure the next government of Australia works with the charities sector to build flourishing communities.

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