It's time

If charities fail to participate as advocates in the political process, the real losers of the next election will be the communities we serve writes CCA CEO David Crosbie.

It’s time, Pro Bono News, 17 June 2021

There will be an election in Australia within the next 12 months, possibly before the end of 2021. You can sense the shift in the political atmosphere, the uneasy tension associated with an election year in the Australian political cycle. Members of Parliament are talking more about their electorates, there is a softening at the edges of unpopular policies, a sharpening of potential political weapons, and the ambitious intolerance within political parties is being tempered by electoral realities.  

While many charities have been working on their election action plans for some time, there are a lot of charities who will not have seriously considered how the election of a new incoming government may impact them. 

Unfortunately, the reality is that waiting for a new government to take office before seeking to engage and advocate is a good way to perpetuate irrelevancy. If your issues are not on the incoming government’s agenda, it will be very difficult to get any traction in achieving change. 

Every charity that wants to advocate for their community should now be thinking about developing an election action plan that will ensure their issues have been raised within government, regardless of who wins the next election.

Some people have suggested it is dangerous for charities to advocate during an election campaign. In my experience, it is much more dangerous to not advocate during an election campaign. Your issues, your communities, your voice needs to be heard loud and clear by all sides of politics. 

It is important to note that issues-based advocacy is not political advocacy, and that charities are entitled to advocate, but not campaign for or against a particular political party or its candidates.

The distinction between issues-based advocacy and political advocacy has been explained by the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission in its guide: Political campaigning and advocacy by registered charities – what you need to know.

It’s okay for a charity to:

  • have a purpose of advancing public debate – including promoting or opposing a change in law – where this furthers or aids another charitable purpose
  • have a purpose to promote or oppose a change to a law, policy or practice in the Commonwealth, a state or territory or another country where this furthers or aids another charitable purpose.

It’s not okay for a charity to:

  • have a purpose to promote or oppose a political party or a candidate for political office
  • have a purpose to engage in or promote activities that are unlawful
  • have a purpose to engage in or promote activities that are contrary to public policy (which, in this context, means the rule of law, our constitutional system, the safety of the public or national security).

Each of the three listed as being not okay are “disqualifying political purposes”.

To be clear, as long as charities are engaging in advocacy on a particular issue aligned to their purpose, charities are free to highlight that one candidate (Candidate A) has a better policy on that issue than another (Candidate B). Charities are not free to say everyone should vote for Candidate A or Candidate A’s political party.

For example, CCA can say that the ALP currently has better policies for charities than the Liberal /National Parties, but CCA cannot say that you should vote for the ALP.

As the ACNC guidelines suggest, in the lead up to an election, some charities may want to make their voices heard in the political arena. Charities can campaign on political issues to advance their charitable purposes, including during election periods, as long as they meet the requirements of charity law and other relevant legislation.

CCA continually lobbies major political parties about their policies in relation to charities and not for profits. During election time however, this advocacy becomes more focused. 

For individual charities, the starting point of most election strategies is knowing what they would like to achieve for their community from the next federal government. What changes or new initiatives are needed and how might they make a difference to your community? Having a compelling story to tell and a clear ask is the beginning point of any campaign. 

A critical activity within charity election strategies is to meet with local members of Parliament. Now is the time to arrange these meetings as we head into the Parliamentary winter recess. Every election result is a product of many local contests. Your local MP should be championing all their local charities, the work they do and the issues the charities want to see addressed, but this can only happen if your local MP is aware of your work and your issues. Make an appointment, follow your local MP on social media and make comments, invite them to events and meetings, write to them on behalf of your charity and your community, engage and be known.

Charities can also participate in various forums, debates, and discussions. There are many platforms created during an election campaign at a local, state and national level. Charities should be active participants in these forums, raising their issues and ensuring the needs of their communities are acknowledged. 

If charities and our issues are going to be prioritised on the political agenda during the upcoming election campaign, it will require active participation in the election campaign process.

Business groups are rarely backward in advancing their own interests during an election campaign.

An engaged and connected charities sector can not only inform the issues of an election, but also help shape the agenda of the incoming government, regardless of who wins. 

Many charities now recognise that serving a community requires more than doing good work, it also requires good advocacy. If charities fail to participate as advocates in the political process, the real losers of the next election will be the communities we serve. 

Read on Pro Bono News: its-time