When I was a teenager, I used to do respite care for families with children who had disabilities. A number of these children lived with single parents in social housing and seriously struggled to meet the costs of living, of caring for their children’s needs, and would not have been able to afford respite without governments funding the NGO disability service organisations I worked for. But still they, like many families, struggled to meet their basic needs because of a lack of income. With the NDIS, came a bipartisan commitment to offer all of us ‘insurance’ for the risk or likelihood of disability. Much can be learnt from the disability advocacy movement in how social change occurs.
Indeed, throughout our history advocacy by individuals, organisations, peaks and consortiums, has been critical for major social change. Consider, for example, the role of advocacy for the rights of workers; fundamental shifts regarding the rights of women; advocacy for our Indigenous Australians and their right to be citizens, the national apology and closing the gap; the consumer movement in mental health and, most recently, marriage equality. Some of Australia’s biggest moments in history have been underpinned by advocacy.
Freedom of speech isn’t enshrined in our constitution, but as our Human Rights Commission says, “The High Court has held that an implied freedom of political communication exists as an indispensable part of the system of representative and responsible government created by the Constitution”.
Advocacy matters. It matters for our children, our families, our communities and, especially for those whose voices are lost, quiet or oppressed.
It’s worth remembering this at a time when the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill 2017 is being debated.The Bill targets “foreign interference and economic espionage.” Leaving this primary purpose aside, two of the consequences of the current bill is that charities may lose their ability to advocate and to receive international philanthropic donations.
The Bill is aiming to stop “contemporary political campaigning, in which political parties, independent candidates, trade unions, interest groups, advocacy groups and others spend millions of dollars each year to influence voters”. This is where things become blurry because “political campaigning” has been defined as “The public expression of any views on an issue that is, or is likely to be, before electors in an election”.
Voting via elections is fundamental to our democracy. We vote for individuals to represents us at various levels of government and to make decisions that affect our everyday lives – what we have access to, how we live, and our opportunities for education and employment and participating in our communities. Our schools, health services, roads/ public transport, sporting facilities, water, power, sewage, etc., all fall within the remit of government. Charities have long been providing and advocating for those who have fallen between the cracks, or who might be at risk of doing so across many areas under government’s jurisdiction.
Charities have long played a role in supporting and advocating for people when markets and governments fail. They have existed in Australian history since well before the welfare state and have continued to fill gaps either on behalf of government (with funding being directed from government to the third sector) or instead of government (with funding via other sources, such as philanthropy).
It’s important for a stronger, equitable society that charities are able to continue to advocate for their “charitable purpose”. This is their “why” – their mission, their reason for existing, and what all their work is established to achieve. We want to see more fundamental social changes where people have the opportunity to achieve their goals free from discrimination and social inequality. As CSI believes, this will only be achieved if we have a strong and vibrant social purpose sector where organisations across sectors work together to grow positive social impact. But this can only work if the people we’re working for have a voice. This is at the heart of social change. This is the role of advocacy, and this is why it matters.
Professor Kristy Muir, CEO