Neutral? Bipartisan? Impartial? Or just bland? – What are the rules for charities?
As we get closer to elections, for many organizations this means working on their political “stance”. But what do we mean when we say neutral or bipartisan, and is that really the best approach, asks Neil Pharaoh.
In Australia, the ACNC regulates what can and cannot be done on a not-for-profit basis with respect to elections, advocacy and campaign. The definition is quite broad and includes everything from campaigning, developing policies, raising awareness, as well as promoting or opposing government laws, policies, practices and decisions. The general rule is that your activities must serve your charitable purpose.
The ACNC brief succinctly gives some examples and parameters – advancing public debate is allowed, promoting or defending certain laws or policies is also allowed, but promoting a political party is not. Likewise, the promotion of illegal activities is also prohibited.
What does this mean for you in an election?
Whether neutral, impartial or bipartisan, or somewhere in between, you should land on a position you want to take before the election.
Government engagement is a term we started using with our clients about a decade ago, as we believe it encompasses partnerships, advocacy, lobbying, campaigning and a genuine desire to improve engagement for social and public policy reasons – engagement in this ACNC definition is therefore permitted in Australia. Navigating the politics of not promoting one party or another is where the line becomes less clear – hence the need to maintain some balance.
To be neutral or bipartisan means to engage with both the government and the alternative government equally. If you have a high-level Liberal on your board or management team, you should strive to partner with a high-level Labor (and vice versa). Especially when the election is officially called, you should recognize the concept of “caretaker government” and treat both the MP and the likely substitute MP as closely as possible as equals, the same also being true for ministers and shadow ministers.
It is good practice to build relationships with government and alternative government – being neutral or impartial does not mean not engaging with one or the other, it means engaging with both.
I also deliberately use the terms ‘government’ and ‘alternative government’, or ‘member’ and ‘most likely opponent’, because practically these concepts do not apply to the variety of small parties and cross-member MPs in the seats of the lower house (unless they are the member or most likely the opponent as well). You are really wasting your time engaging with an independent party, the Greens, One Nation or Palmer United in a lower house seat that has a very safe margin. This prioritization helps reduce the number of activities you need to do to prepare for the election.
This begs the question, what if you don’t like the politics, or the politicians, or even the person who presents themselves as the most likely opponent, or even the member? We are often put off when we ask our clients to engage with MPs or candidates and sincerely wish them good luck in the election. My suggestion, even if you don’t like their views or values - stay bipartisan, thank them for their time or for their candidacy. You don’t need to endorse their policies, but you should consider and appreciate their involvement in the democratic system.
The fact is that our system of government relies on people, organizations and movements engaging in the process to succeed. While some organizations think that being “neutral” and avoiding the process is the policy position, this only prevents their organization’s views from being properly heard. Be assertive and committed: be bipartisan, build relationships with both sides, and advocate for policies that advance your organization’s cause.
About the Author: Neil Pharaoh has spent most of his volunteer and professional life in and around social purpose organizations, government, public policy and advocacy. Neil has spearheaded numerous social policy and advocacy campaigns on women’s rights, equality, medical research and education, and ran for Parliament in Victoria in 2014 and 2018. Neil is co-founder and director of tankwhich focuses on better engagement with government, runs regular workshops and advocacy sessions, and advises leading social purpose organizations on their government engagement strategy and systems.
Events on the Hill is a bi-monthly column focusing on all things politics, policy, campaigning and advocacy. Stay tuned for updates on political trends and elections, news on lobbying and advocacy, and government engagement tips, tricks and insights that are specifically written for the sector social/for specific purposes.
If you have any ideas, suggestions, advice or questions please feel free to email Neil Pharaoh at [email protected] or contact him via Tanck’s social networks: @tanckconsulting on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and instagram.