Hyper-Partisan Politics, the Public Service and Charities
8 November 2018 at 8:47 am
Hyper-partisan politics is ramping up the pressure on charities, according to Community Council for Australia CEO David Crosbie, who explains how charities can influence policy for public benefit without betraying their own ethics.
Tom Richardson, writing for the InDaily in Adelaide offered us this description of hyper-partisanship: “We are in an age of hyper-partisanship. It’s a cancer on political life, fed by demagoguery and personality politics, fuelled by social media and the rise of tribalism over critical thought. A partisan fog so thick that not merely administrative incompetence but basic moral decency can be overlooked in the baying feud that political life has become.”
For me, the “baying feud” of hyper-partisan politics is reflected in the “win power at all costs” approach to contemporary political life in Australia. In such a politically charged environment, how can charities or others positively influence policy for public benefit without betraying their own ethics and commitment to fundamental human values?
Surviving and thriving in a more partisan political environment offers a set of fundamental challenges. Where once, fierce independence was respected, now it is more likely to be dismissed or maligned.
Professor Peter Shergold, speaking in his role as national president of the Institute of Public Administration Australia (IPAA), this week released findings of a national survey of over 800 public servants across state, territory and federal bureaucracies. The survey results highlight critical issues for the public service that also resonate across the charities sector.
Most public servants in the survey feel proud of their profession and over two-thirds think the public service is professional, ethical and citizen caring. Unfortunately, this positive perspective was somewhat limited. Most survey respondents believed the public service is struggling with only a third saying it is currently fit for purpose. Similarly, two-thirds of public servants fear for its future, no longer think it is committed to providing frank and fearless advice, and support the view that public servants are not appreciated for the non-partisan role they play. Talking to The Mandarin about the survey findings, Shergold said:
“I think what you are now picking up is growing concerns about the political environment in which a non-partisan public service has to operate. We are operating in a world that is becoming hyper-partisan.
“That is obviously hard, because if you think about what the public servant does, it is to provide expertise and considered advice, from a group of people who, on a professional basis, are paid to see all sides of a public policy issue. By their very nature, public servants are trained to work with successive governments, in a way in which you negotiate on an iterative basis for compromise. And now you’re doing it in a world in which that non-partisanship is afforded less respect, and their expertise is afforded less respect.”
One demonstration of increasingly partisan politics is the way government ministers now often answer media questions about their policy announcement or issue by referring to the opposition, highlighting how their policy is superior to their political competitor.
Public servants have typically provided independent advice to government about policies – not political talking points on the weaknesses of the opposition’s position. Applying a partisan lens and developing appropriate messaging has always been the role of political advisers in minister’s offices who take the balanced public service advice and turn it into politically-charged ammunition. But with less ministerial resources, more scrutiny, more media, more detail, more issues and less time, some public servants are being asked to provide more “usable” advice.
There is no doubt, as Denis Grube argues in his new book, Megaphone Bureaucracy Speaking Truth to Power in the Age of the New Normal, that “senior bureaucrats are finding themselves drawn into political debates they could once avoid”.
Secretary of Home Affairs Mike Pezzullo recently gave a speech at the IPAA talking about working in partnership with ministers to improve outcomes. He emphasised that it was not his role to shift the government’s politics or change the government’s view of public interest.
The public service is increasingly being expected to provide what might be termed partisan advice, advice to support the positions of government and denigrate opponents.
What does this mean for charities? In pursuing the charitable purpose, advocating for beneficial policies, should we also be expected to present a politically partisan argument in support of policies that we believe are going to best serve our communities? Is the best way to get our proposal for policy change enacted to highlight how delivering on our policies will provide potential partisan political point scoring?
The pressure on charities to support various funding and policy decisions comes in many forms and is often quite overt. Ministerial advisers sometimes ring senior staff within a charity and point out the need to publicly support a policy or even criticise an opposition statement. The implication is often that government support for certain policies and funding may be dependent on the public cooperation of the charity.
Hyper-partisan politics is ramping up the pressure on charities. I am hearing more stories of governments and political parties leaning on charities.
Unlike public servants who are increasingly being dragged into the partisan mire, charities have their own constituencies, their own purpose which goes beyond government and politics. Charities can share an agenda, policies, and goals with a government or a minister, but charities are not and should never be political partners with government. Charities do not serve a government or a minister.
In my experience, there are simple precautions all charities can take to ensure they are independently focused on their mission. One of these is to ask the question, “would I provide the same brief to the opposition that I would to government?” If not, why not?
The strength of all charities is invariably grounded in holding firm to a set of values, to well-informed policy positions that may or may not be popular with governments. Perhaps more importantly, our democracy relies on independent voices raising concerns and advocating for those without power.
Giving in to the pressures of hyper-partisan politics may provide some short-term wins, but sacrificing independence and authenticity will extract a higher price in the longer term.
If we are to achieve the Australia we want, charities cannot allow themselves to get lost in the thick fog of hyper-partisan politics.
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.