Charities urged to stay vigilant on advocacy rights
16 September 2019 at 4:58 pm
A former UK charity leader has admitted he resigned from his role so he could more openly criticise government policy, prompting discussion around the state of charitable advocacy in Australia.
John Tizard stood down as chair of the National Association of Voluntary and Community Action (NAVCA) earlier this year, only seven months after taking up the position.
In a piece published in The Guardian last week, Tizard said he “could no longer stay in a post where I could not speak openly about the hardship being inflicted across the country”.
“It was not an easy decision, but standing down means I can campaign and intervene on these issues in ways that would have been more difficult had I remained,” Tizard said.
He added that: “For some time, I have felt that too many charities, though not all, have been too timid about challenging the government and addressing the underlying causes of social injustice.”
This piece elicited a strong reaction on social media, including from Save the Children CEO Paul Ronalds.
A vibrant civil society, including the right to advocate, is critical for a well function democracy. Effective NGOs balance great service delivery with systemic change through policy engagement & advocacy. This must be protected @ComCouncil @ACFID https://t.co/0v9LJUCH68 pic.twitter.com/6TTtpSXXMn
— Paul Ronalds (@PaulDRonalds) September 13, 2019
He told Pro Bono News that while local charity leaders faced similar dilemmas to Tizard, the Australian sector benefited from greater advocacy protections than the UK.
Ronalds noted the Not-for-profit Sector Freedom to Advocate Act 2013, which prohibits Commonwealth agreements from “restricting or preventing not-for-profit entities from commenting on, advocating support for or opposing changes to Commonwealth law, policy or practice”.
“But I see the dangers and the dangers are real. We need to make sure that charity CEOs and their boards are not self-censoring,” Ronalds said.
“And it’s a critical role of NGOs, including charities, to balance great service delivery with advocating for systemic change. So we need to be really vigilant on this.”
Charitable advocacy came under threat in late 2017 with the introduction of the foreign donations bill.
Charities led a long campaign to amend the legislation – which broadened registration and disclosure requirements for non-party political actors – arguing it would stifle advocacy and impose unnecessary red-tape on these organisations.
This campaign eventually led to changes that meant non-partisan issue based advocacy was not captured in the final ban, vastly simplifying the compliance on charities and other organisations speaking publicly about policy issues.
Ronalds said he welcomed recent comments by the Assistant Minister for Charities Zed Seselja, who reiterated his support for charities having the right to advocate.
“I take him at face value. I welcome those comments. And I would encourage my fellow CEOs to be bold, to challenge, and be prepared to argue for changes in policy, which I think is a critical function of all charities,” he said.
“It’s important because we’ve seen right around the world how the freedom to advocate for charities can be quickly eroded. So we shouldn’t take it for granted either.”
Ronalds added that charities needed to better communicate to the public about the importance of charitable advocacy, which complemented the work charities did on the ground.
“It was Hélder Câmara, the former Archbishop of Recife in Brazil, who once said, ‘when I give the poor food, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist’,” Ronalds said.
“I always have that quote in my mind. To be effective charities, we need great service delivery but also to advocate for systemic change.
“And if we’re not doing both, I think we’re not actually serving our mission.”