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Opinion: Changing the public-private mix forever?

4 min read

In my recent book Trouble in the Land of Giving. Australian Charities, Fraud and the State (Palaver 2020), amongst other concerns, I discuss how charitable organisations and philanthropic trusts separately embody the rapidly emerging privatisation of government responsibility. There, I am not making a simple point about outsourcing. I argue that governments are not just turning over their welfare responsibilities to business-modelled charities, they are abdicating these responsibilities. This relinquishment is probably not reversible and may well be unconstitutional.

While charity is a significant outcome of the rolled-back state, it also carries a troubling DNA. In structural terms, charity has been caught up in a subtle insurrection against the notion of égalité.

Crazily, it’s an insurrection from above. There has never been an instance in the last fifty years when people have massed on the streets and called out: “What do we want?” “Privatisation”! “When do we want it?” “Now!” The retraction in the Australian service state in favour of pro-business models of service delivery was engineered by successive governments who stopped listening to the people and cravenly took instructions from big business.

Enter the new army of good people running all manner of charities filling the moral and service voids left by governments. Silently, and without much debate, charitable action is, by responding to this shameful government inertia, unintentionally changing the private-public mix forever. Egalitarianism, born behind the barricades of the French Revolution, is the great sine qua non of democratic societies and is supposed to flow on into social policy. It is behind all forms of governance that strive for equal rights, one person-one vote and equality before the law.

Charity, it may be a surprise to hear, is unsympathetic to this project. Charity is not egalitarian. Charity provides partial, unstable and highly discriminatory responses when universal action (the “public” in the public-private mix) is called for. Charities bring food to the poor without necessarily addressing poverty. If, in the rare event they do speak out, they find themselves in trouble with governments. Charities give shelter without necessarily tackling homelessness and the inequities in the housing market. Charities, in other words, fill gaps when deep transformative change is required.

I make this point carefully and with great sympathy for charities because raw need on the streets cannot wait for the “transformation”. Something must be done now, and charities are stepping into the moral vacuum. My point is a structural one. The more widespread and potent the gap-filling charity model becomes the less demand there is for governments to return to their primary obligations. A recent New Statesman article, tellingly titled “Mind the Gap. How Charities are Mopping Up after the Government’s Failure to Care”, concentrated on the explosion of small local charities in the UK helping people just get the basics in a society where the poor continue to be bashed by the welfare cuts under Conservative rule.

Yes, charity is a gap filler. But there is more. Charities depend on donor responses that are spasmodic, erratic and emotional when, at risk of labouring the point, rational long-term social planning and action is needed.

Charities also alter the accountability context. Government provision should be openly accountable to the people. Charity provision, on the other hand, is privately and essentially responsive to donors, particularly in circumstances where reputational damage must be avoided. But it is not accountable to donors. The relationship between people who give money particularly to the big charities and the professionals in those charities who allocate this money across programs remains un-researched. There is anecdotal evidence which suggests that this relationship is not all that it seems.

A charity established in Brisbane some decades ago to pastorally minister to the needs of psychiatrically vulnerable people has been enormously successful through a huge Catholic volunteer commitment, fundraising and donor support. After the Queensland Government unexpectedly cut off funding, this charity was forced to establish closer links with Centacare, the umbrella organisation for Catholic welfare. Recently a wealthy donor and his wife, grateful for the care their disabled son has been given at CPPC for many years, wanted to fund a new kitchen in the day centre where clients (“members”) receive cooked meals. They were told that the decision to fund the new kitchen was not his to make. The decision as to how to spend his donation would be made by staff from the Archdiocese of Brisbane Catholic Foundation. So, there can be awkward relationships between donors and charities in the distribution of charity dollars.

The actual harvesting of the donation dollar also needs our attention. This harvesting is all askew because it depends on how effectively charities flirt with the donor market. Slick advertising companies are brought in and social need is packaged and promoted like biscuits. Ads and campaigns pull at our heart strings and force us to choose between the benefaction of a homeless charity or one that rehouses greyhounds. This is a market of vicissitudinous morality. What triggers a downpour of donations one year will be a dry riverbed the next. If it’s not the cute images of doe-eyed Labrador puppies, it’s the confronting images of the bruised face of a domestic violence victim. It’s the millionaire prostate cancer survivor who endows a medical research facility engaged in finding a cure for that cancer. The millionaire has chosen to donate to a cause close to his heart. But this is not necessarily the cancer that is producing the greatest need. Only a government is capable of egalitarian redistribution. There is no moral constancy in the redistribution of wealth for charitable purposes. It is whim governed.

How did we get to this? Simple answer: through the privatisation of government social responsibility.


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Bill De Maria had a controversial thirty three year career in the Department of Social Work and Social Policy at the University of Queensland. He has also been a tireless social activist and was responsible for establishing the Brisbane Welfare Rights Centre and the Queensland Whistleblowers’ Action Group. He is author of Deadly Disclosures: Whistleblowing and the Ethical Meltdown in Australia (Wakefield 1999) and his work is honoured in Radicals in Australian Social Work, edited by by Carolyn Noble, Bob Pease and Jim Ife (Connor Court 2017).


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