The shifting shape of government relations
11 March 2021 at 8:50 am
As the approach to advocacy and government relations seems to be changing, with governments appearing less interested in engaging with charities or their issues, it’s up to charities to adjust or be left behind, writes David Crosbie.
“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” – Stephen Hawking
I have never felt the need to employ a lobbyist or a government relations company to represent the charities I have managed. I do not say that as a boast, more a statement of the way things have always been done. Regardless of which side of politics or what level of government, I have generally been able to arrange meetings with senior government ministers to talk through issues, raise concerns, try to find common ground and offer solutions. These meetings have always been respectful relationships, acknowledging the reality of what it entails to be a minister in a government and the limited capacity to drive change across multiple areas.
Similarly, I have always felt that if I had a concern and put it in writing to a government minister, I could expect my concern to be considered, or at least to receive acknowledgement of my letter. In the past there were staff employed in government offices to respond to all the ministerial correspondence and to escalate those that may require more consideration. In fact, “ministerials” were considered a high priority task in the public service.
Over the years I have met with prime ministers and senior ministers on regular occasions. In some cases, on-going relationships were established. We did not always agree, but having the conversation was seen as important, and often there was common ground, things that we could agree about or even advance together.
On one occasion, a ministerial reshuffle resulted in the appointment of a new minister for mental health. At the time, I was head of the peak body for mental health in Australia, so this was an important new development for the people I represented. The announcement was made on a Saturday. Saturday evening, I received a phone call from the new minister asking if I could meet with him early the next week. On the Tuesday, not long after his swearing in as a minister at Government House, six leaders from the mental health field had a long discussion with the new minister in which we outlined our issues, and the minister was encouraged to engage directly with people experiencing mental health and their carers. The new minister for mental health spent the best part of his first two months visiting different parts of the country meeting people from the mental health sector, mostly mental health consumers and carers. A ministerial advisory group was established, and the minister became a strong advocate for better mental health treatment. Importantly, because he had listened and continued to listen, he also became a strong advocate within government for ensuring people living with mental health had better access to employment and housing.
Access to government ministers has never meant charities could change government agendas. CCA had four meetings with then social services minister Kevin Andrews about his plan to abolish the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission. CCA was not able to convince Minister Andrews to support the ACNC, but no-one would suggest the minister was not aware of our position or our arguments. We continued meeting with Minister Andrews on a range of issues, despite our differences.
This approach to advocacy and government relations seems to be changing, particularly at a national level. Governments appear to be less responsive, less interested in engaging with charities or their issues. There are probably several interrelated factors at play here.
One factor may be the increasing polarisation of public political discourse. Within a hyper-partisan political context, the importance of the messenger surpasses the merit of the message. Powerful vested interests now employ former government insiders to represent their case to government, and with more and more sophisticated and personal targeting of government ministers, outsiders have less opportunities. It makes sense that a message delivered by a government insider, someone well known to government or the ministerial staffers and their minister, can often carry more weight and be given more serious consideration than the same message delivered by an outsider to government like a charity.
This messenger versus message is also being played out in the media; the pro government media who offer a confirming perspective to their readership versus the media the government sees as being against it. Many journalists must be walking on eggshells as they write their stories, concerned that highlighting a government failure may cost them access or standing with the government, or concerned that pushing a government line will label them as a government apologist.
Another factor is that in the current economic environment, government has little interest in considering new commitments that are not directly related to supporting Australia’s economic recovery post the pandemic.
A third factor is that the government policy agenda is dominated by the outcome of the last four royal commissions the government has initiated. Reforming the financial system and banks, providing quality aged care, improving disability services, and strengthening Australia’s capacity to respond to natural disasters including bushfires, are all very big policy agendas.
And then there is the pandemic itself, vaccines, borders, quarantine, targeted economic support and rebuilding an economy – all pressing and immediate policy issues.
It is within this context that for the first time ever CCA has found some value in drawing on the services of a government relationship firm that employs people with very senior experience inside the current government. CCA is not alone. Some charities are now seriously considering paying to attend political fund-raising dinners and other forms of buying access to decision makers, knowing that if they don’t take up these opportunities, others will.
When I talk with charities from many different areas of activity, a consistent theme is that their capacity to be actively engaged with government seems to be more limited than previously. Of course, this is a generalisation, and some charities continue to maintain excellent and productive working relationships with government, but there is no doubt that this task is now harder than previously.
For charities, the new challenge in government relations may well be about how to drive changes that will benefit the communities they serve without focusing so much energy or effort on influencing government policies and practices. In many ways, this is just the start of a much bigger discussion about purpose and outcomes, why charities exist and how they make difference.
As we plan for the future, charities may have to accept that the old ways of relating to government are changing, and charities need to adjust to these changes or be left further behind in our capacity to effectively serve our communities.