Not-for-profits are write on message

Posted on 24 Oct 2023

By Greg Thom, journalist, Institute of Community Directors Australia

Will pen writing
For purpose organisations have upped their advocacy by writing multiple letters to government agitating for change.

Open letters co-signed by dozens of charities and not-for-profits have become a powerful weapon to pressure governments into action.

For people passionate about their work in the not-for-profit sector, the capacity to advocate for a cause is a natural extension of the practical help they provide to those in need.

It wasn’t always that straight forward.

In a recent speech in Melbourne before 170 attendees from the sector, Charities Minister Andrew Leigh reminded those present of the recent attempts from some quarters to stifle sector advocacy.

“There was a period under the previous government that saw charities more as a threat than an opportunity, prompting three open letters from the sector to successive Liberal prime ministers asking for them to back off on the attacks on charities,” said Mr Leigh.

In an indication of how much has changed, the Australian Charities and Not for profits Commision (ACNC) now formally endorses the right of organisations to speak their minds.

Commenting on the recently released ACNC 2022-2023 Annual Report, Commissioner Sue Woodward said those in the sector had made their views clear.

“Charities told us that advocacy was an important area of their work and they wanted greater clarity on the rules,” said Ms Woodward.

The ACNC this year published new guidance on its website offering advice for charities that wanted to take part in public discussion about the Voice to Parliament referendum.

Sue Woodward
ACNC Commissioner Sue Woodward.

“We spent time in a range of forums [throughout the year] emphasising that charities have the right to advocate to further their charitable purpose,” said Ms Woodward.

For-purpose organisations have embraced this freedom to advocate, banding together multiple times over the past few weeks to put pen to paper in letters to government agitating for change.

Their correspondence includes:

19 October 2023

Dear Prime Minister and Ministers,

Re: Urgent relief for civilians in Gaza and Israel

We are writing to you as humanitarian organisations concerned about the dire situation in Gaza and Israel, and the implications for the wider Middle East region.

We call upon the Albanese Government to exert all possible influence with partners towards five life-saving outcomes:

1. Protection of civilians

2. Negotiation for the safe release of hostages

3. Humanitarian access, including a humanitarian pause

4. A ceasefire to end rapidly escalating conflict, and

5. Renewed efforts towards a long-term diplomatic solution.

We are deeply concerned at the ongoing violation of the human rights of citizens in Gaza and Israel, and breaches of International Humanitarian Law (IHL).

The Israel Defense Force’s shelling and blockade of the Gaza Strip, including shutting down critical infrastructure such as water and electricity; preventing food and medical supplies from entering, threatens the survival of 2.3 million civilians, half of whom are children.

Ongoing conflict is causing a massive escalation in civilian deaths. At the time of writing 4,200 people have died; the catastrophe at Al-Ahli hospital has killed at least 500 people alone.

The serious water shortage is leaving people vulnerable to waterborne diseases, infections and dehydration. Women, children, the elderly, and the disabled are being disproportionately impacted.

ACFID has unequivocally condemned the killing and kidnapping of civilians by armed Palestinian groups. The

assaults that led to the deaths of thousands of Israelis and the taking of numerous hostages are abhorrent acts.

We ask your government to be unceasing in your efforts to achieve unimpeded access for humanitarian assistance, a humanitarian corridor and protection of civilians. We call for a pause in the hostilities to allow for critical humanitarian work to save lives.

Ultimately, protection of civilians and alleviation of the humanitarian crisis can only be guaranteed through peace.

The Australian Government must use its voice and exert its influence to seek a ceasefire – an end to the rapidly escalating conflict – as a matter of urgency.

We note that Australia’s official policy is in support of a two-state solution, which would see Israel and Palestine co-exist peacefully.

The current crisis poses a grave risk to the political and practical viability of a two-state solution.

If Australia wishes to see a future in which Israel and Palestine exist peacefully, side-by-side, within secure and recognised boundaries, we must act now to halt the current conflict. We must also renew our efforts towards a long-term diplomatic solution.

We await your action.

Marc Purcell
Chief Executive Officer
Australian Council for International Development (ACFID)

Cosigned by members of the ACFID:
1. ACCI Relief
2. Action Aid
3. Anglicans in Development
4. Anglican Relief and Development Fund
Australia (ARDFA)
5. Australian Lutheran World Services
6. Caritas Australia
7. CBM Australia
8. Educating the Future Australia Limited
9. Global Mission Partners
10. Good Return
11. Hagar Australia
12. HOST International
13. Indigo Foundation
14. International Needs Australia
15. Islamic Relief Australia
16. Live and Learn
17. Love Mercy Foundation
18. Mary Ward International Australia
19. Marcy Works Ltd
20. Opportunity International Australia
21. Oxfam Australia
22. Palmera
23. Plan International Australia
24. Save the Children Australia
25. School for Life Foundation
26. See Beyond Borders Australia
27. St John of God Outreach Services
28. Transformational Aid International (TAI)
29. Tearfund Australia
30. Union Aid Abroad (APHEDA}

Dear Minister,

Reforms to the EPBC Act must enshrine a fair say for the community

Australia is poised with a once-in-a-decade opportunity to improve its federal environment laws.

The dire State of the Environment 2021 report again showed the deeply concerning downward trend for Australia’s nature, which includes the escalating impacts of the biodiversity, extinction, and climate crises, and the continuing, rapid destruction and degradation of Australia’s globally unique and iconic land and sea Country.

Professor Graeme Samuel’s review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act offered important insights into the dysfunction that has undermined federal environmental regulation in Australia.

Notably, he found a lack of trust by the Australian public in the EPBC Act’s ability to deliver for nature, stemming from poor transparency, inadequate opportunities for public participation in decision-making, limited pathways for legal review, and perceptions of a government that shuns accountability for its decisions.

As a result, the Act fails to ensure integrity and accountability in decisions affecting the environment, resulting in unacceptable outcomes for people and the planet.

We applaud your swift recognition of this integrity gap in Australia’s environment laws, and your commitment to restoring public trust and confidence.

We now call on you to comprehensively meet this commitment by enshrining a fair say for the community in environmental decision-making and recognising the unique rights of First Nations people.

Achieving integrity and accountability means more than increasing transparency; it requires enshrining the following set of human rights - which Australia has signed on to -in Australia’s environment laws:

  • The right to know—to access the information that authorities hold.

  • The right to participate—to have a genuine say in decision-making.

  • The right to challenge—to seek legal remedy if decisions are made illegally or not in the public interest.

  • Cultural and self-determination rights of First Nations, including to give or withhold their free, prior and informed consent.

These rights are interdependent and indivisible: enshrining only one or two is not enough. Likewise, EPBC reforms and standards that simply affirm the existing status quo (e.g. by not improving current community consultation approaches or and not expanding avenues to challenge decisions to include merits review) risk setting the reformed laws up for failure, exacerbating public distrust, and further eroding social licence for development projects.

Proposed new features of the reforms, such as Environment Protection Australia and Environment Information Australia, must operate in ways that are open, transparent and responsive to community concerns.

Failure to enshrine these rights in the reformed law would also risk breaching Australia’s binding international legal obligations and undermining Australia’s aspirations to be a global leader on issues relating to the environment.

We call on you to seize the opportunity of the current EPBC reform process to properly and comprehensively enshrine community and First Nation rights to rebuild trust and integrity in our environment laws.

“We spent time in a range of forums [throughout the year] emphasising that charities have the right to advocate to further their charitable purpose.”
ACNC Commissioner Sue Woodward.

The campaigns follow an open letter from the sector's peak body to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in the wake of the Pareto Phone data hacking scandal.

More than 320,000 files and the data of at least 50,000 donors from 70 Australian and New Zealand charities were stolen from the Brisbane based telemarketer before being dumped on the dark web.

Compromised charities included WWF Australia, Plan International Australia and the Fred Hollows Foundation.

In a letter signed by Community Council for Australia CEO David Crosbie and members of the CCA board including Volunteering Australia CEO Mark Pearce, Mission Australia CEO Sharon Callister and Starlight Children’s Foundation CEO Louise Baxter, signatories urged Canberra to provide more cyber safety support for not-for-profits and charities.

A representative group which included Fundraising Institute Australia (FIA) the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) and the CCA later met with staff at the Department of Home Affairs for talks.

Wilderness Society letter charities
More than 30 sector organisations co-signed an open letter to Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek urging Australia to reform the nations environmental laws.

In his Melbourne speech, Mr Leigh said the Australian government understood the powerful role that charitable advocacy played and the way in which public debates were strengthened through the voices of charities.

“Sure, we love it when we have charities that are in agreement with our policies, but I’ll defend it powerfully when we’ve got charities that are disagreeing with our policies,” said Mr Leigh.

“It is really critical that we understand the health of a democracy benefits through charitable policy advocacy.”

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