November 24, 2022

Woodward’s appointment to ease climate of fear

This op ed was originally published in Pro Bono News on 21 Nov 2022.

One of the biggest challenges I hear when speaking with charities about advocacy is the climate of fear that’s been created under the previous federal government and ACNC commissioner.

A hostile approach to engaging with charities and charities’ fears of falling afoul of complex regulations has led to charities self-silencing. Indeed, this was one of the key findings of the Civil Voices project, a major 2017 study into the state of NFP advocacy in Australia. 

But today there is real reason for hope. The Stronger Charities Alliance welcomes news of the appointment of Sue Woodward AM as the new ACNC commissioner and congratulates her for taking on this vital role.

Woodward has been a strong supporter of the alliance’s work to defend the ability of charities to speak up and be voices for change in our society. Her appointment makes clear that the Charities Minister is not only “ending the war on charities” in word but also in deed.

The Stronger Charities Alliance has previously written about the need for a culture shift at the ACNC to one where charities are genuinely empowered to advocate for their communities. This is no small task, but given Woodward’s depth of expertise and her track record of service for the sector there’s reason to feel hopeful that things will change under her leadership. She’ll be able to build on the work of the interim Commissioner, Deborah Jenkins, who laid important foundations in resetting the relationship between the ACNC and the sector.

But the work of Stronger Charities Alliance isn’t over. The capacity of civil society to be a voice at the heart of policy making is shaped by a whole range of factors including charity law and regulation, our electoral laws, our tax system and access to DGR status, and government funding agreements. We need a holistic review of the legal and regulatory landscape in which Australian charities operate and whether it’s fit for purpose in terms of empowering charities to speak up. Whether this can be accomplished through the process the Minister has in mind for creating a ‘charity sector blueprint’ is yet to be seen.

One obvious area for reform in the context of last week’s announcement is the appointment process for the Commissioner. It should come as no surprise that when the government uses a truly merit-based appointment process with an independent panel making recommendations to the Minister, it’s more likely to lead to a merit-based outcome as we’ve seen here. But such a process isn’t required by law. How can we ensure that the ACNC is truly independent of government and that future appointments aren’t like the captain’s calls we’ve seen in the past?

While we have some understanding of the barriers to charities engaging in advocacy, much of the empirical research in this area is old and out of date. That’s why the Alliance is partnering with Pro Bono Australia and the University of Melbourne to launch Voices for Change: researching not-for-profit advocacy in Australia. 

The project builds off past work in this field and will involve an ongoing survey of the sector to provide a regular litmus test on the state of NFP advocacy in Australia. The inaugural survey is now live and is open to any NFP organisation that wants to contribute to building our shared understanding of the barriers to undertaking advocacy. We hope that many organisations will join us on this journey. 

Ray Yoshida - Stronger Charities Alliance coordinator