From the Chair

Suzanne Snively

Suzanne Snively
TINZ Chair

If all government-funded public service providers working for non-governmental organizations (NGO) stayed home from work tomorrow, all of us—even Parliamentarians—would quickly notice the impact.

Rush hour traffic congestion in Auckland and Wellington would be greatly reduced with about a fifth of the workforce staying home. Mid-day traffic and public transport use would also be noticeably diminished without home care workers and volunteers going about their jobs.

At least 20% of health care is provided by not for profit organisations funded by the Health Budget through contracts including for mental health, special advice, long-term conditions, residential care, hospice and community-based service-delivery. Ministry of Social Development funded social services, education, sporting bodies, community services and others also rely on NGOs for delivery.

Many of those NGO contractors, including, for example, hospices, enhance their tight budgets with staff who work on a volunteer basis. In some cases, these services would cost the taxpayer at least 200% more if government funding was withdrawn from volunteer-based NGOs.

Any Prime Minister, Party Leader, Finance Minister, existing or aspiring Cabinet Minister (including the Minister for the Community and Voluntary Sector) attacks these service providers at their peril. And so it was for a recent junior minister who threatened to cut funding to such organisations that spoke against the Government. They jeopardize effective service delivery at value-for-money to the taxpayer.

Voluntary and community sector workers have the right to free speech.

They are voices to listen to. They are the experts in their fields, with knowledge based on deep experience of what their users need. Their dedication, commitment, genuine care and love for those they look after strengthens their message.

The desire of government and political leaders to hush up these people is crazy.

It goes against human rights.

It is also against the law.

In 2014, the Supreme Court of New Zealand delivered its first decision relating to charitable purpose. An important finding is that political purposes can be charitable.

It identified what these were.

  • Since "political” means different things to different people, the concept at the basis of this decision is "advocacy for causes". This applies to any time an organisation acts to persuade people to its views about the charitable purpose it delivers.
  • "Advocacy for causes” can be in the form of opinion pieces, lobbying decision makers, submissions to Parliament, petitions or challenging the decisions of government or business, including in front of the courts.

Other activities that could be regarded as forms of advocacy may qualify under the charitable purpose of advances in education. The Supreme Court's example of this is a charity that conducts objective, unbiased research without having a pre-determined position, or provides advice around the organisation's expertise to decision makers, or helps individuals understand their legal rights or obligations.

The test is that a charity that advocates for causes or tries to persuade people to its views, is charitable when (1) the reason why the charity is advocating (e.g. the relief of poverty), (2) how their goals will be achieved through its policy (such as raising the minimum wage), and (3) what they are doing (submissions, protests) is similar to previously accepted charitable purposes.

Charities may advocate the policies of a political party as long as they ensure that they're independent and don't provide support or funding to a political party.

For example, charities often ask questions of political parties, and publish their answers on their website. Identifying the answers which most align with the charity's purpose wouldn't disqualify the charity from registration (or government funding).

There’s a lot of work to do to open up freedom of speech in the NGO sector. Transparency International New Zealand (TINZ) 2013 National Integrity System Assessment (NIS) took a deep dive into the Civil Society Sector, the pillar which includes the community and voluntary sector.

National Integrity System Assessment Civil Society Recommendation

Integrity Plus 2013 New Zealand National Integrity System Assessment (IGPS, 9 December 2013, Wellington, page 332)

Two of its recommendations are:

c.    Civil society:

  1. Review the appropriateness of contractual and/or statutory restrictions on public advocacy by non-government organisations.
  2. Educate the public on what information they should expect from non-government organisations.

In its response to the 2013 NIS published in 2016 to meet a requirement of the Open Government Partnership National Action Plan, Cabinet said (section 82):

The NIS Report recommendation is focussed on the ability of NGOs to speak out on policy matters which they may have expert knowledge about. No statutory restrictions have been identified. Any contractual provisions will be the subject of negotiations between the parties.

With the upcoming election period looming, TINZ is preparing its questions for candidates and political leaders. Direct questions about how they will ensure that NGO contracts are aligned with the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision will be part of our questioning.

And it would be timely too for other civil society organisations to be asking questions on the same basis. In many cases, they will have direct contractual provisions to use as examples.

Suzanne Snively, Chair
Transparency International New Zealand Inc.

29 May 2017

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