Exploring democracy and philanthropy

Over the years I have noted the tendency of some governments to restrain the effectiveness of civil society and the advocacy of groups working to improve our society – Jill Reichstein

It was my great pleasure recently to represent the AEGN at a cross-sectoral civil-society gathering at Parliament House. CEOs of a wide range of organisations came together to support the launch of the Safeguarding Democracy report prepared by the Human Rights Law Centre.

The launch was followed by a series of meetings with MPs and ministerial advisers, providing us with an opportunity to advocate in support of the important role civil-society organisations play in our democracy.

The report outlines some disturbing changes brought about by governments of all stripes, which have begun to sour relationships between government and civil society and to threaten the ideals of a free press and free speech.

I attended to add a philanthropic voice to this chorus, in line with my longstanding concerns. Over the years I have noted the tendency of some governments to restrain the effectiveness of civil society and the advocacy of groups working to improve our society. The impacts of this can be widely felt, even by philanthropic grantmakers.

In recent years some environmental organisations have been stripped of government funding and others have had their funding significantly reduced, and environmental activists who challenge the interests of the fossil fuel industry have been likened to “terrorists” by some elected representatives. AEGN members were very concerned last year at the establishment of a Parliamentary Inquiry which targeted tax deductibility for environmental advocacy.

This critical scrutiny goes well beyond the environment movement, however. Refugee organisations, community legal centres, indigenous organisations, homelessness organisations and even the Australian Human Rights Commission have been subjected to efforts to silence them. With our democracy requiring the input of civil-society organisations to work, we risk damaging the foundations of our society if such attacks go unanswered.

Every day at Reichstein we see close up how precarious it is for many civil-society organisations to speak up in defence of the public good. For this reason the Reichstein Foundation was proud to support the Human Rights Law Centre in compiling the Safeguarding Democracy report as a means of documenting the extent of such attacks. AEGN members, The Myer Foundation and The Graeme Wood Foundation, along with The Oak Foundation, pooled resources to enable this important piece of work to happen.

In Canberra for the report’s launch were CEOs or senior staff from:

  • Australian Council of Social Service;
  • Australian Conservation Foundation;
  • Save the Children;
  • Australian Council of Trade Unions;
  • Oxfam;
  • Environmental Justice Australia;
  • Philanthropy Australia;
  • Places You Love;
  • Catholic Social Services Australia; and the
  • Australian Council for International Development.

A highlight of the day was the opportunity for groups of attendees to meet with key decision-makers, promoting the report and speaking out about specific attacks. I was particularly concerned about alerting MPs to the risk of such attacks to reduce involvement in philanthropy and the need for grantmakers to feel confident about funding the wide range of activities effective civil-society organisations are involved with.

It is clear that the wind which had been blowing through Canberra (and which created the need for the report) has died down somewhat with a change of Prime Minister. However, the outcome of this change on the Inquiry into the Register of Environmental Organisations is still unclear, as the Committee has not completed its report.

On a positive note, I received great feedback on the submissions and the philanthropic roundtable organised by the AEGN. This demonstrates the importance of philanthropy speaking out, when governments propose changes which restrict our ability to fund strategically.

Funders often talk about the need for not-for-profit organisations to work together, and the day in Canberra is a great example of what can be achieved when different organisations line up around a common goal or need. There is clear interest from these community leaders to continue working together on this response to the attacks on democracy, which bodes well for our future.

Jill Reichstein OAM

Chair, Reichstein Foundation

This story is re-published, with thanks, from the AEGN 10 March 2016 Member Newsletter.