The vital role of charities in an election
7 October 2021 at 8:59 am
Charities that engage with their local candidates have an opportunity to talk about what matters in their communities and collectively send a powerful message to all federal politicians about the importance of charities, writes David Crosbie.
You get the feeling a federal election is on the way. Political divisions are being accentuated, and personal attacks seem to be more common. As the “all in this together”, one Australia, approach of 15 months ago fades in our memories, we can see the foundations for the politics of misinformation, smear, fear and exaggeration already being poured.
The media will play its role, in part driven by business models that rely on spinning news in whatever way is required to confirm the views of their customers. When Fox News in the US ran stories that questioned the big lie, that is, they ran factual news stories on the lack of evidence for claiming a widespread election fraud had been perpetrated on the American people, they started to lose audience share. It was not the story their viewers wanted to see or hear.
And it is clearly not just one kind of politics that likes to have their views confirmed.
We now know a lot about what attracts people to certain political messages, why some resonate, and others are dismissed. It is not surprising that the reason for acceptance or rejection of a proposal can be more about the messenger than the message itself.
This bias to what we already believe drives us all to some degree, and is common across the spectrum of political and ideological practice. It is also common across race, age, gender, and class. Many people will not change their previous voting patterns, regardless.
We also know that to win elections, political parties and candidates need to appeal beyond the relatively narrow demographic of like-minded supporters. Getting the core of party supporters to again vote for their party is not the challenge. And herein lies the opportunity for many charities.
In every local electorate, political candidates will be looking for opportunities to show that they belong, are part of the community, and share the aspirations of their local electorate. If they can establish a strong local connection, they have a better chance to win over their electorate, to gain support from those voters who are not strongly aligned. Many electorates change their voting trends each election, sometimes counter to state-wide or national political party voting trends. And that is a challenge every local political candidate sets themselves.
Charities can help local candidates demonstrate they are connected to the local community, and not just through facilitating pork barrelling announcements. They can act as a trusted independent voice and way of reaching voters that other channels may miss.
In the recent Canadian elections, charities did not play the role we might have expected, despite most of the conservative Harper government restrictions on charitable advocacy having been lifted. It seems fear of repercussions for speaking out during election campaigns continued to be a factor.
No such fear should exist in Australia. The legal right to engage in advocacy and issues-based campaigning during elections is already well established and protected in Australian charity law. Provided a charity is not campaigning for a particular political party or candidate, and provided they are pursuing their core charitable mission, advocacy during election campaigns is a legitimate charitable activity.
The recent Global Citizen appeal case against the ACNC again very clearly reinforced that engaging in advocacy is a lawful and accepted way to pursue a charitable purpose.
There are many ways for charities to meaningfully engage in the political process.
In election campaigns, photo opportunities can be golden for local candidates. Having a local candidate visit during an election campaign and pledge support for your charity is a win for all involved. It is a great first step in open communication about what is needed within your community. All the better if the photo can be staged to be more than a group of people standing around together talking. Strategists always suggest trying to think visually for media coverage. There are often options to do something interesting together – cook, garden, sport, music, etc. Even the presentation of a poster or artwork to the candidate may create a more newsworthy story.
At a broader level, most political candidates from major political parties will be instructed by their central office not to freelance on policy, that is, not to offer their own views on issues or policy. Political parties not only seek to manage the message, but also who gives the message and when.
This makes it difficult for strategies like surveying all candidates for their views. But that does not mean political parties cannot or should not be scored for their past performance or their proposed policies in a given area. The issues-based scoreboard is an established way for charities to draw attention to their policy asks. Again, if you can think visually and create a strong image around the issue rather than just a set of words or a table, the story has a better chance of being used in the election media. Saying that a disease costs 500 hospital beds each year is not as strong a media statement as stacking up 500 beds and inviting the media along to photograph them.
Many charities in Australia have well developed campaigns they have planned ready for the next election whenever it is called. Many others have begun thinking about their future and what they may or may not want in the policies of an incoming federal government.
For those charities who have yet to really think about their engagement in election campaigns, it is time to start planning. At the very least, think about hosting local candidates. For most charities, election campaign activity will not be about participating in hard edged political debate, but about engagement and relationship building to strengthen the charity and the communities they serve in the medium and longer term.
There are over 55,000 registered charities in Australia and only 151 electorates. On average, there are over 360 charities per electorate, and many charities have multiple offices and locations. If just 5 per cent of Australian charities managed to engage with their local candidates in the lead up to the next election, that would mean on average 18 charities in each electorate could run events and meet with their local candidates. These charities would be able to talk about what matters in their communities and collectively send a powerful message to all federal politicians about the importance of charities.
Many industry groups have already prepared their election strategies including arranging for their members (mostly business groups) to host events in key electorates. Some have brought in the strategists, the event organisers, the media advisers. They know their economic future can depend on good engagement and elections are an opportunity to build relationships.
As the public political discourse becomes noisier and more contested over coming months, it is always worth remembering that Australian federal elections are ultimately about 151 electorates. Charities across Australia are well positioned to play a critical role in shaping each of these 151 electoral contests. In many ways, it would be remiss of charities not to do the right thing by their communities in ensuring their needs are front and centre in every electorate.
Charities have the power to change the kind of Australia we live in. This election, we can and should exercise that power.