Government should support charities, not silence them - Op Ed, The Australian


The Australian, 18 April 2022

In the late nineteenth century, Alfred Nobel got to read his own obituary. His brother Ludvig had died, and a French newspaper mistakenly published an obituary that had been prepared for Alfred. Nobel might have hoped that it would laud the fact that he had invented dynamite. Instead, it proclaimed ‘the merchant of death is dead’. Nobel, who didn't have a wife or children, suddenly had a preview as to how history was going to remember him. But he had time to change that. In his will, he set up the Nobel Prizes, giving nine tenths of his wealth to establish what are now the most prestigious prizes in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, peace and economics.

Giving is a great legacy to provide to others. Giving during our lifetimes can also be a source of pleasure. A cross-national survey found that people who donated to charities tend to be happier than others who didn't. Another study found that people who had supported a charity had significantly better blood pressure readings.

Yet Australia has experienced a significant drop in the share of people giving to charity. Whether you look at tax statistics on charitable deductions or the Roy Morgan survey showing that from 2011 to 2018 the share of Australians giving to charity dropped from 70 per cent to 61 per cent, it's clear we've got a problem. Blood donations are also down. This is part of a general trend in Australians becoming more disconnected.

If elected, an Albanese Labor Government will work with Philanthropy Australia and the broader philanthropic sector to double charitable giving by 2030. This is an ambitious task, but an achievable one. It will not only transform Australia's culture of giving, but also help build a nation that is more connected – and, if we believe the research, happier and healthier too.

Boosting donations requires fixing the hodgepodge of fundraising laws that see the typical charity spending a week of staff time to comply with seven different sets of rules for states and territories if they want to raise money online. Right now, these outdated laws are costing charities over $1 million a month – money that doesn’t go to the people it was intended to help.

We also need to end the war on charities. Since 2013, Australian charities have written three successive open letters to Liberal Prime Ministers, complaining about attacks on the sector. All that wasted energy could have gone towards cleaning up the environment, looking after the most vulnerable or helping young people with mental health problems. Yet the Morrison Government has sucked time and resources into ideological battles. For most charities, a change of government would be like a breath of fresh air.

One especially pernicious aspect of the attacks on charities has been the attempt to muzzle their voices. Organisations that are funded to provide services have found themselves confronted with ‘gag clauses’ that prevent them from criticising the government. In the legal aid, environmental and social sector, charities are battling a government that wants them to be seen but not heard. An Albanese Government would welcome the voices of charities in the public debate, recognising that they bring insights and wisdom that deepen our democratic conversation. Donors that see their charities working to shape public policy might dig a little deeper too.

Another way we might work to double charitable giving is to collaborate with the community sector on a national giving campaign. Awareness of skin cancer was improved by the Slip-Slop-Slap campaign. The community’s understanding of AIDS was transformed by the Grim Reaper campaign. Might Australia do the same with philanthropy? In Canada, a campaign dubbed ‘My Giving Moment’ helped to change the culture of philanthropy in that country. Something similar might work here too.

Boosting philanthropy is not about government doing less. It's about society doing more to address challenges such as disease, poverty and environmental degradation. It’s about becoming a nation of ‘we’ rather than ‘me’.

In our book Reconnected: A Community Builder’s Handbook, Nick Terrell and I document the collapse of civic society over recent decades. Compared with a generation ago, Australians have fewer friends and know fewer neighbours. Australians are less likely to join groups, volunteer our time or play an organised sport. It will take a lot to turn these trends around, but part of the answer is to take an ambitious approach to boosting philanthropy. If the creator of dynamite could create the world’s top peace prize, there’s hope for all of us.


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.