Advocating for our right to advocate

Posted on 26 Jun 2024

By Hassan Nasir Mirbahar

Megaphone advocacy charity

The ability of charities to speak up for what’s right can’t be taken for granted and must be protected, says Stronger Charities Alliance coordinator Hassan Nasir Mirbahar.

Successive Australian governments have contested the charity sector’s advocacy role for more than 40 years.

The argument goes that charities should not engage in political advocacy – that our role is limited to delivering practical outcomes like providing meals to people experiencing homelessness.

However, as the CEO of Anglicare Australia, Kasy Chambers, put it: “We don’t exist to wipe the crumbs from the rich people’s tables to make meals for poorer people. We exist to turn those tables over.”

Attempts to stifle charity advocacy have taken many forms: disproportionate regulation in election debates, gag clauses in funding agreements, using deductible gift recipient (DGR) status as a form of control, and the installation of an openly anti-advocacy head of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.

You’re probably familiar with these if you have ever attempted to engage in system change through advocacy. And you may have been involved in our collective efforts to defend against these attacks.

If not, it’s worth remembering just how close we came to having charities’ role in society suppressed to the point of insignificance.

Despite the ongoing attempts of governments to use legal and policy avenues to block charities from playing our role in policy advocacy, we have consistently demonstrated the value of our voices in a vibrant Australian democracy.

Charities amplify the real-life stories of marginalised communities, creating a channel to relay to the government the effects of their policies. Our connection to communities and issue-area expertise makes the charity sector a valuable voice advocating for the policy solutions that solve the social problems we are dedicated to working on.

If the government does not address these conditions, Australian charities will once again be vulnerable to attacks on their crucial advocacy role in the future.

While the Labor government has expressed a wish to empower and collaborate with charities, and indeed announced the end of the “war on charities,” the conditions for that war's resurgence still prevail.

Research undertaken by the Stronger Charities Alliance, a coalition of almost 140 charities, revealed that despite a sense of optimism about its advocacy rights, the sector remains concerned that policymakers and regulators do not fully understand and appreciate their advocacy role.

Hassan Nasir Mirbahar
Stronger Charities Alliance campaign manager and coordinator Hassan Nasir Mirbahar.

Through the research, charities also told us that government funding still limits their advocacy. Sometimes, the philanthropic sector was reluctant to fund advocacy because of the legal and political uncertainty around advocacy.

Building on the survey findings and consultations with sector experts, we identified three crucial reforms that would give the sector more certainty about our advocacy role.

Today, the Stronger Charities Alliance has released three easy-to-implement solutions to protect our crucial advocacy role and sandbag charitable advocacy into the future:

1. Enshrine the public benefit of charitable advocacy in the Charities Act

We propose to amend the Charities Act to provide that political advocacy engaged in by charities is presumed to have a public benefit.

The High Court in the Aid/Watch case has already recognised the constitutional value of advocacy in Australia as a public benefit, but it's important that the legislation makes this clearer so that organisations don’t have to contest their rights in the courts. This will provide certainty for charities in being able to undertake advocacy without fear of reprisal or risk to their charitable status.

2. Ensure that appointments to the ACNC commissioner role are based on merit

The appointment of the ACNC commissioner is currently left to ministerial discretion, which could be subject to abuse in the future.

It wasn’t long ago that notable critic of charitable advocacy Gary Johns was appointed to the commissioner role, where he carried out attacks on charities for speaking out.

We have proposed a merit-based and transparent appointment process, which the current government has already implemented for a range of similar institutions. It’s a commonsense policy reform that we’ve already collectively decided is beneficial for Australian democracy.

3. Stop government funding from being used to gag charities

The NFP Advocate Act was intended to address the problem of “gag clauses,” but independent and anecdotal evidence suggests this practice continues. We propose an expansion of the remit of the law to prevent government departments from issuing verbal instructions to silence charity advocacy.

These simple, easy-to-implement and budget-neutral solutions have been meticulously crafted into the Charity Legislation Amendment (Promoting Certainty, Trust and Independence) Bill 2024 by the Stronger Charities Alliance in collaboration with charity law experts. This week, we’re presenting the Bill to politicians across the Parliament.

These reforms are urgently needed. The Labor Party’s past and present platforms have included a pledge to protect charitable advocacy. The proposed Bill does just that, and delivering the reforms would help them fulfil their long-standing commitment.

We invite all members of Parliament to prioritise the passage of these reforms without further delay.

If the government does not address these conditions, Australian charities will once again be vulnerable to attacks on their crucial advocacy role in the future. It’s up to the Albanese government to legislate these changes. It’s up to all of us as charities and community organisations to advocate for our right to advocate.

Hassan Nasir Mirbahar is the campaign manager and coordinator of the Stronger Charities Alliance, a collective of almost 140 charities that work together to protect charity advocacy. He is based at the Australian Democracy Network, which brings people and organisations together to make our democracy fairer. The views expressed here are the author's own and don't necessarily represent those of all alliance members.

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