Advocacy and disrupted government
11 February 2021 at 8:56 am
Government as we knew it has been disrupted. The challenge for charities is to adapt and engage through new mediums and shine our own lights on issues that matter, such as the ongoing fight to fix fundraising regulation, writes David Crosbie.
Policy development within federal government has stalled over the past 12 months and longer. This is not surprising given the COVID-19 pandemic, the bushfires, and even the fact that the “miracle” Morrison government didn’t expect to be in government after 2019. This is a government elected with a primary mantra focused on jobs and growth, but Australia is now dealing with recession and high unemployment.
In critical areas like health, education, welfare, crime and safety, environment, tax reform, etc. there is little or no attempt to reform or even improve government policies and services. Reviews, commissions, and advisory groups may occasionally spring up, but the implementation of agreed policy recommendations has become a low priority within government. And this situation is unlikely to improve any time soon.
“The most remarkable development since we returned to work this month is Scott Morrison’s barefaced announcement that the government has enough on its plate rolling out the virus vaccine and getting unemployment down, and so there’ll be no attempts to deal with any of our many other problems before the election late this year or early next.” – Ross Gittins, economics editor at the Sydney Morning Herald.
The lack of appetite for policy initiatives has been difficult for charities that work to ensure governments around Australia are more responsive to the needs of the communities they serve. Many are finding that government ministers are less likely to listen, to engage, be part of planning and discussions to try and improve how government services and policies operate and better serve the national interest.
Not that long ago, when someone became the government minister for a particular area they would reach out and set up meetings with key stakeholders, try to understand current issues, take the time to appreciate the views and opinions of those who work or need to be in the areas the minister is responsible for. This is no longer the case. Some ministers – both old and new – seek no engagement with community interests except in their electorate or through their party-political fundraisers and other activities.
As we enter what may well be an election year, the current political wisdom – borne partly of the 2019 shock defeat of the ALP with its broad ranging policy agenda – is that as Ross Gittins puts it: “The trouble with policies is that they’re much harder for you to sell than for your opponents to misrepresent.”
Within this context, it is not surprising that the non-controversial recommendations agreed to by government following the 2018 review of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission are yet to be implemented, as are reforms to the deductible gift recipient status process.
As for charitable fundraising reform, two years on from the Senate Inquiry findings and there’s still only token action at best, with proposals for a new deeming process referenced to ACNC registration being undermined by caveats that allow individual states and territories to impose their own registration requirements.
It may seem a bleak picture for policy change advocates, but there are always some gaps, bright spots of accountability that charities and communities can use to advance their causes.
One of these policy change opportunities has arisen through the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements (Bushfire Royal Commission) established in February 2020.
More than 1,700 submissions were received by the Bushfire Royal Commission. Responding to the recommendations in the commission’s report has assumed a priority few other areas in government seem able to command. There is even a website keeping account of progress against each recommendation.
From a charity perspective, one of the key recommendations in this report is Recommendation 21.2 to reform fundraising laws, which states, “Australian, state and territory governments should create a single national scheme for the regulation for charitable fundraising”.
The federal government has supported this recommendation. In the progress report against this recommendation the government suggests there have been positive moves to streamline reporting and cross border recognition since 2013. Unfortunately, despite all the supposed progress, a charity with a “donate here” button on their local charity website in Tasmania must still satisfy individual multiple jurisdictional demands including proof of ID, police checks, addresses in different jurisdictions, advertising of the fundraising campaign in some jurisdictions, expenditure controls in others, etc.
While the government is willing to be publicly held to account for implementing this royal commission recommendation, they also appear happy to offer conciliatory words about harmonisation while retaining completely separate jurisdictional requirements. If this approach is not challenged, we can expect more of the same, as we have experienced over the last decade or more of trying to have this issue addressed.
While we continue to advocate on the need to fix fundraising regulation, we will also need to engage in our own public reporting of the reality faced by charities across Australia trying to negotiate the patchwork of dysfunctional administrative arrangements that regulate licensing and operating of fundraising activities. To this end, several long-standing advocates in this area including the Fix Fundraising coalition will be seeking support and engagement from many charities over the coming months. There is an opportunity here, but as with many opportunities, action is required to achieve an outcome that goes beyond decorative embellishments to a dysfunctional system.
Finding the opportunities to push the government’s own accountability to various royal commissions is just one of the strategies charities will need to use over the coming months. There are other ways to drive change that are not so dependent on government accountability and buy in. The use of courts, shareholders motions, community movements, online campaigns, vetoes of products and services, and even group buying of equities (GameStop) are just some of the strategies worth exploring, depending on the purpose and what might or might not be achieved.
We should also remember the importance of local electorates and local campaigns, particularly as elections draw closer.
In many ways, government as we knew it has been disrupted, just as media and other areas have been disrupted. The challenge for charities is to adapt, find the gaps, engage through new mediums, shine our own lights on issues that matter, and develop innovative ways of making a difference.