The Not-for-Profit sector needs a global policy perspective

By Sara Bice. Research Fellow, Melbourne School of Government, University of Melbourne

The next Federal election is about nothing if not public policy. I don’t blame you for thinking, ‘Hello, Captain Obvious’. But let’s just take a moment to marinate on that.

For Australia’s estimated 600,000 Not for Profit organisations, it’s ultimately not the political wranglings, the budget janglings or bureaucratic wranglings that matter. It’s the policy.

Public policy. A term batted about by politicians with the light touch of a shuttlecock in a badminton match. Light on the lips and easy to deploy, but surprisingly difficult to hit right.

What is public policy, anyway? And who is it for? These are two of the most common questions asked of me by my public administration students, and they are the two questions most pertinent to Australia’s Not for Profit sector in the forthcoming election.

Let’s turn first to ‘What is public policy?'

This week’s announcement of a full-scale door-knocking and sign-posting operation by Campaign for Australian Aid (CAA) symbolises the need to question what public policy means today. With $224 million in budget cuts to Australia’s foreign aid recently announced—the largest in history—CAA proclaims that while Australians may cast the ballots, their votes affect people worldwide.

As globalisation crunches time and space, borders become more fluid, communications more instant and problems more wicked, issues which in the past would have sat comfortably in the realm of foreign policy are shifting even into our local councils. Public policy is no longer local/domestic policy. It has well and truly entered the global age.

The majority of central concerns to be debated in this year’s election will reflect global markets, international relationships and governance debates, including how we structure tax, engage with strategic foreign partners on issues like climate change and battle global market corruption.

Today’s NFPs—regardless of focus or mission—operate within this complex and joined-up policy environment. As Swinburne’s Director of the Centre for Social Impact, Professor Jo Barraket writes, this “new era of governance has impacted on the operating environments of [NFPs] in very practical ways”. She notes that it also means that NFPs’ roles in addressing social inclusion and delivering services that respond to local effects of globalisation are more important now than ever.

This is public policy today. It’s complex and borderless, and in this election, it will require NFPs to extend their imaginations to position the concerns to which they dedicate themselves within a global policy context. CAA’s campaign on foreign aid is likely just the start.

If public policy is truly global and this complex, then who is it for?

This question is perhaps more critical than any other. As Australia’s NFPs lobby to get their issues into the political debate and push for campaign promises to generate results for their constituents, we must all ask ourselves: Who does this policy ignore or actively exclude?  Who will be the winners and losers of this election?

For several NFPs, women clearly emerge as losers if the incumbents remain in power and with an unchanged vision for Australia. Launching a list of 50 recommendations to put women at ‘the centre of the economy’ in key policy areas, including health, education and housing, 10 women-focused NFPs decried a Liberal budget that disadvantages women.

Surely, the call for women’s equality in the budget will be both supported and matched by colleagues working in disability, migration, youth, aged care, Indigenous issues and other groups too often pushed to the periphery of political debate or rolled out as political footballs when convenient. In this election, the who matters just as much as the what.

If, as The Drum’s Mungo MacCallum declared, this election is one of fear and greed, our NFP sector has a critical role to play in raising the bar of political debate to one of hope and giving. Campaigns like those of CAA and NFAW remind us all of the real issues at the heart of why the NFP sector exists: people and the belief that advocacy and support can achieve better futures.

Sir Joh Bjelke-Peterson once offered a bit of word salad to those who might eschew a political position. “You can’t sit on a fence, a barbed wire fence at that, and have one ear to the ground.”

The article was originally published in Pro Bono News. (Election Watch has added two Facebook posts that were not published in the original article).

Banner image: Flickr/UNwomenAsiaPacific


gender; politics; foreign-policy Gender Watch; Politics; Foreign Policy