Silencing the Poor
23 January 2018 at 9:47 am
By attacking charities and their ability to advocate, we’re creating a society where only those with power and access to start with have the ability to influence policy, writes Anglicare Australia executive director Kasy Chambers.
Over the past four years, community organisations and charities have gotten used to being under sustained attack. Think of the de-funding (and later re-funding) of community legal centres, the targeting of environment groups, and the recent appointment of charities critic Gary Johns to head up the charity regulator.
But the latest attack goes beyond the sector and threatens democracy itself. The government is proposing to classify most major charities as “political campaigners”, allowing it to audit their advocacy work and their sources of income. It suggests an impurity of motive, yet nothing could be further from the truth.
This is because a new amendment to the Electoral Act would force any group to register as a political campaigner if it has spent more than $100,000 on “political expenditure” in a three-year period.
Political expenditure is defined as: “The public expression of any views on an issue that is, or is likely to be, before electors in an election (whether or not a writ has been issued for the election).”
In other words, this would apply to any comment on any policy issue at any time. Every charity that employs someone to analyse issues like aged care, homelessness, disability, living costs and virtually any other issue is likely to end up classified as a political campaigner.
The end result will be a set of requirements so complicated that some charities will be forced to hire staff simply to manage their compliance. Any charity would rather spend this money on their core mission. Others might stop speaking out altogether, deterred by the new requirements and huge penalties for getting it wrong – miscalculating the date that you become a “political campaigner” could cost up to $50,000 per day in fines.
So why, when almost everyone would agree that the most corrupting influence on public debate comes from lobbyists and big donors, is civil society being targeted?
Charities already enter the public debate with a huge disadvantage compared to moneyed interests. They are barred from endorsing candidates, donating to parties, or advocating outside their charitable purpose.
The big influencers in Australian politics can do all of this and more. Charities now have their DGR status threatened regularly, while business spending on advocacy and lobbying can be written off as a legitimate cost. Membership fees that companies pay to their own advocacy bodies are tax deductible. Even donations to political parties, from both businesses, unions and individuals, can be taken from pre-tax income. Just this week, the Minerals Council admitted that its donations are designed to buy access to decision-makers.
On top of that, big business and vested interests can afford to spend millions on lobbyists to help them secure important meetings, on advertising before elections, and on airspace to set the political agenda.
All of this is known to have a major impact on public debate, yet none of it would be curbed by the new rules. In light of that, attacking the groups who speak up for the public good, a purpose that goes beyond their own self-interest, seems perverse. Unless it was the point all along.
Maybe it simply suits governments these days for charities to provide essential services (work that many Australians would rather see done by government itself), without ever questioning the root causes of poverty, inequality, and homelessness. It serves the dual purpose of turning charities into an arm of government while also silencing the poor and protecting an unfair system from scrutiny.
The charity sector is uniting against the proposed changes. But seeing off the Electoral Act amendments won’t end the attacks. One of Gary Johns’ first major tasks as commissioner will be to review the ACNC, and there is every reason to be concerned that community advocacy will be threatened yet again.
It seems to us that all of these attacks are driven by an agenda to exclude the least powerful members of society, and those who speak up on their behalf, from public debate. By attacking charities and their ability to advocate, we’re creating a society where only those with power and access to start with have the ability to influence policy.
Community advocacy has proven to be one of the only ways we can balance the coordinated, self-interested, and privileged forces that drive decision making and policy in Australia. It is in everybody’s interests to protect it.
About the author: Kasy Chambers is executive director of Anglicare Australia. Anglicare Australia is a network of 40 agencies, more than 20,000 staff and volunteers, working with over 900,000 clients annually across Australia.