Pursuing purpose in times of politics
9 May 2022 at 4:39 pm
What’s right and what’s wrong when it comes to advocating as a charity during election time?
Elections have a way of focusing purpose, and for many charities the time to advocate for their purpose is now. But how can you do so whilst staying within the lines of the law?
Recent weeks have seen some charities making headlines for operating outside of the usual advocacy borders. Guide Dogs Victoria launched an internal investigation after its CEO gave a ringing printed endorsement of Kooyong Liberal candidate and current federal treasurer, Josh Frydenberg. The founder of the Inclusion Foundation and the CEO of Breast Cancer Network Australia were also criticised for their endorsements of Frydenberg.
Then just last week, Liberal Senator Andrew Bragg made a complaint to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) over Smart Energy Council’s links to political figures. The details of the complaint have not been made public.
So where is the line?
Under the Charities Act, it isn’t illegal for charities to promote certain policy positions – provided that advocacy furthers their purpose.
And as Alice Drury, senior lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) told Pro Bono News, advocacy is in fact encouraged as it brings attention to your purpose.
What charities are not allowed to do is promote or oppose a specific political party or candidate.
But the HRLC holds concerns about Senator Bragg’s complaint to the ACNC. Advocacy group Hands Off Our Charities, which includes the HRLC, released a statement in response to reports of Senator Bragg’s complaint. In it, the group said the few details about the complaint that had been released appeared to show that the Smart Energy Council had engaged in proper conduct under the law, “like tweeting in support of positions taken by a range of candidates that further a charity’s purpose”.
What can I do?
Drury said the difference between “normal” advocacy and what Guide Dogs Victoria’s CEO engaged in was purpose.
“It’s different if you are representing a charity and in representing a charity you support the election of a candidate, particularly in absence of reference to your charitable purpose,” she explained.
“You’re probably falling on the wrong side of the law if you start to support or oppose candidates with absolutely no reference to charitable purpose whatsoever.”
Drury said the HRLC “strongly encourage[d] charities to advocate” on the issues of relevance to them as the election approaches. In fact, she said, this is typically what’s seen at this point in the election cycle as charities take advantage of a more switched-on public and more responsive candidates, eager to impress.
But she said there were two areas of compliance that charities should be aware of.
The first is complying with your obligations as a charity.
“That has to always be in furtherance of your charitable purpose. I imagine most charities are pretty comfortable with that and that distinction about issues-based advocacy as opposed to promoting or opposing a political party or candidate,” Drury said.
The other space, which Drury said was more complicated, is compliance with electoral laws and disclosure of electoral expenditures. She recommended not for profits visit the HRLC website for a guide on how to remain within the confines of this law.
With the election just days away, Drury added that the HRLC sees opportunities for strengthening charity advocacy.
“We’ve been heartened to see some commitments by Andrew Leigh’s office from the ALP and we are very concerned at the prospect of a Coalition government continuing on its current path of attacking charity advocacy,” Drury said.
“Charities have come together a few times over the last few years to try and resist significant attacks on their ability to advocate on their issues, including through tighter control of the ACNC regulations, which relates to charities’ ability to organise public interest protests and peaceful protests, as well as restricting charities ability to advocate on issues in the lead up to elections by amending electoral laws.”
Sher said they were calling on candidates in this election to affirm their commitment to uphold the ability of charities to advocate on their issues.
“Charity advocacy is vital to democracy and is a sign of a healthy democracy when collective voices can come together to ensure that our communities are heard. And it’s really dangerous for our democracy that members of government support charity advocacy only insofar as it bolsters them and their ability to be re-elected,” she said.