Sticking to Our Knitting
30 March 2017 at 8:36 am
Minister Dutton and the Parliamentary Inquiry into the Register of Environmental Organisations have done civil society a service by encouraging us to think about our purpose and our knitting – and the need to gather up more balls of wool and knit one, purl one, argues CEO of Community Council for Australia David Crosbie.
The Minister for Immigration Peter Dutton suggested CEOs of large companies should “stick to their knitting”, and not bully the government by expressing views on political matters like marriage equality. He also suggested the CEOs should stand for political office if they wanted to express political views, and not use the public profile of their companies to promote individual views.
These statements attracted widespread coverage in the media, mostly negative. For a government committed to free speech and liberty (the basis of liberalism) it was a rather surprising attempt to dismiss the views of some influential Australians. Regardless of the merit of arguments for and against marriage equality, or other policy issues, the suggestion that CEOs of major companies expressing their views can be seen as inappropriate bullying of government has implications for the charity sector.
Many in government believe the “stick to your knitting” approach should be more broadly applied across the charities sector. These views within government are reflected in the findings of the inquiry into the charitable status of environmental organisations released in May last year:
Inquiry into the Register of Environmental Organisations
House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Environment
The committee recommends that legislative and administrative changes be pursued by the Australian Taxation Office to require that the value of each environmental deductible gift recipient’s annual expenditure on environmental remediation work be no less than 25 per cent of the organisation’s annual expenditure from its public fund.
This inquiry believes “knitting” for environmental organisations is remediation work and all environmental charities should be doing it. Unfortunately for the government, requiring at least 25 per cent of expenditure to be in a specified area of activity is not only inconsistent with the legal definition of charity, it also confuses activities with purpose.
Not that long ago, CCA, along with many other organisations across the charities sector, advocated strongly to ensure protections for advocacy were written into the Charities Act 2013 so that the sole charitable purpose can include: “promoting or opposing a change to any matter established by law, policy or practice in the Commonwealth, a state, a territory or another country.”
The explanatory notes included as part of the charities act refer specifically to the 2010 High Court judgement in relation to the AID/WATCH case. For those unfamiliar with this case here is one of the most important statements from the High Court judgement:
It could scarcely be denied, these days, that it may be necessary for organisations, whose purposes are directed to the relief of poverty or the advancement of education to agitate for change in the policies of government or in legislation in order to best advance their charitable purposes. No-one would suggest that charitable and political purposes are mutually exclusive. A charitable institution may have charitable and political purposes, provided that the political purpose is not the main or predominant purpose of the organisation.
Aid/watch incorporated v Commissioner of taxation of the commonwealth of Australia (2010)
The law could not be clearer. Advocacy for policy change is a legitimate charitable endeavour or activity provided it is in support of the charitable purpose. Charities can take a political stance. While they cannot campaign for a particular candidate with how-to-vote cards, or stand candidates themselves to try to obtain political office, all charities have the legal right to advocate for policies, to publicly say the policy of a particular political party is not good for the communities they serve.
I would go one step further. I think in many circumstances charities have an obligation to their charitable purpose that requires advocacy.
Imagine an environmental charity that knows a large company is continuously poisoning local waterways and chooses to only take remedial clean up action? This charity would be failing to adequately pursue its charitable purpose. A charity committed to protecting and enhancing our environment would have an obligation to seek to change the regulations and practices that lead to the poisons being in the waterways in the first place.
My experience is that charities are often at their best when driving sustainable changes to improve the lives of people in the communities they serve. Charities drove the introduction of random breath testing and standard drink labelling that have now indisputably saved thousands of lives. What if the charities involved in this advocacy had been content to treat the injured and help bury the dead?
Charities that lift their sights and try to reduce and prevent harm in our communities deserve commendation, not condemnation.
For many businesses, their knitting may primarily be about delivering dividends and capital gains to owners and shareholders, but that is no longer the whole story. Increasingly, businesses are talking about their values and what value they provide their communities.
For many charities across Australia, advocacy is our knitting. If we are to achieve the Australia we want to live in, we might all need to gather more balls of wool and get stuck in.
About the author: David Crosbie is CEO of the Community Council for Australia. He has spent more than 20 years as CEO of significant charities including five years in his current role, four years as CEO of the Mental Health Council of Australia, seven years as CEO of the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia, and seven years as CEO of Odyssey House Victoria.
David Crosbie writes exclusively for Pro Bono News on a fortnightly basis, covering issues of importance to the broader not-for-profit sector.