Neutral? Bi-partisan? Impartial? Or just bland? – What are the rules for charities?
15 March 2022 at 8:33 am
As we get closer to the election, for many organisations it means working through their political “stance”. But what do we mean when we say neutral or bi-partisan, and is this really the best approach, asks Neil Pharaoh.
In Australia the ACNC regulates what not for profits can and can’t do in relation to elections, advocacy and campaigning. The definition is quite broad, and includes everything from campaign involvement, development of policy, awareness raising, as well as promotion or opposition of laws, policies, practices and decisions of government. The overarching rule is that your activities need to further your charitable purpose.
The brief from the ACNC succinctly gives a few examples and parameters – advancing public debate is allowed, promoting or advocating for certain laws or policy is also allowed, but promoting one political party is not. Likewise, promoting unlawful activities is a no-no as well.
What does this mean for you in an election?
Whether neutral, impartial or bi-partisan, or somewhere in-between, you should land on a position you want to take going into elections.
Government engagement is a term we started using with our clients about a decade ago, as we believed it encompasses partnerships, advocacy, lobbying, campaigning and a genuine desire to improve engagement for social and public policy reasons – engagement in this definition of the ACNC is thus permitted in Australia. Navigating the politics of not promoting one party or another is where the line becomes less clear – thus the need to maintain some balance.
Being neutral or bi-partisan means engaging with both the government, and the alternative government equally. If you have a high-profile Liberal on your board or management team, you should endeavour to match with a high-profile Labor person (and vice versa). Especially when the election is formally called, you should recognise the concept of “caretaker government” and treat both the MP and the likely alternate MP as close as you can as equals, the same being also true for ministers and shadow ministers.
It is good practice to build relationships with both government and alternate government – being neutral or impartial doesn’t mean not engaging with either, it importantly means engaging with both.
I also use the term “government” and “alternate government”, or “member” and “most likely opponent” deliberately, because practically these concepts do not apply to the variety of minor parties and crossbenchers in lower house seats (unless they are the member or most likely opponent as well). You are really wasting your time engaging with an Independent, Greens Party, One Nation or Palmer United in a Lower House seat which has a very safe margin. This prioritisation helps reduce the number of activities you need to do to lead up to the election.
This begs the question, what if you do not like the politics, or policies, or even the person running as the most likely opponent, or even the member? We often get push back when we ask clients to engage with MPs or candidates and genuinely wish them well for the election. My suggestion, even if you do not like their views, or values – stay bi-partisan, thank them for their time, or for running for office. You do not need to endorse their policies, but you should consider and appreciate their involvement in the democratic system.
The fact of the matter is that our system of government relies on people, organisations, and movements engaging with the process to be successful. While some organisations think that being “neutral” and avoiding the process is the principled stance, all that does is prevent their organisation’s views from being properly heard. Take the assertive approach and engage: be bi-partisan, build relationships with either side, and stand up for the policies that further your organisation’s cause.
About the author: Neil Pharaoh has spent most of his voluntary and professional life in and around social purpose organisations, government, public policy and advocacy. Neil has been behind many leading social policy and advocacy campaigns on gender rights, equality, medical research and education, and ran for Parliament in Victoria in 2014 and 2018. Neil is co-founder and director of Tanck, which focuses on better engagement with government, and regularly runs workshops and advocacy sessions and advises leading social purpose organisations on their government engagement strategy and systems.
Happenings on the Hill is a fortnightly column focusing on all things politics, policy, campaigns and advocacy. Stay tuned for updates around political trends and elections, lobbying and advocacy news, and hints, tips and ideas on government engagement that are specifically written for the social purpose/for purpose sector.
If you have any ideas, suggestions, tips or questions, please feel free to email Neil Pharaoh at firstname.lastname@example.org or reach out to him via Tanck social media: @tanckconsulting on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.