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Chancellor Professor Peter Shergold AC

September 08th, 2022

“It seems to me the emergence of such publicly oriented activities undertaken by not-for-profit organisations supported by philanthropy are clearly in the public benefit. By their actions they raise awareness of the increasingly precarious condition of democratic traditions and liberal values….’’

Chancellor Professor Peter Shergold AC, Chair, AMP Foundation

To my eyes something of even greater significance and importance is happening in the space of charity politics. I am watching with interest a small but emerging group of charitable organisations whose major activity is political advocacy. But with a distinctive public purpose. They are explicitly all intended to be non-partisan. Their ambition is not to argue for a particular political approach to addressing forms of disadvantage or depredation but rather to engage in evidence-based public discourse with the intention – the profound intention – of strengthening democratic governance itself. Their focus is on how to enhance the structure and the systems and the culture of political decision-making…. this distinctive approach undertaken by organisations whose advocacy is often based upon the translation and demonstration of research, which has been conducted in public-funded universities. Presenting themselves proudly as independent of political parties, they pursue changes in how citizens are engaged in decision-making or how the public can better scrutinize the development of legislation or how government policies can be more effectively designed, delivered and evaluated. Or yet how the quality of political representation can be improved. Using the power of public discourse supported by a range of demonstration projects they do not seek particular political outcomes. Rather their intention is to make more democratic the manner in which citizens can engage with government as they develop and communicate and implement programs, either through legislation or administratively. (I am involved in various ways with a number of these organisations.)

I am presently chairing a panel which has been asked – and is philanthropically funded – to examine the response of Australian governments to COVID-19. The review is supported jointly and generously by three well-known philanthropic organisations – the Paul Ramsay Foundation, the Minderoo Foundation and the John and Myriam Wylie Foundation. What brought these three institutions together was a shared belief that the public needed to have access to a review that was funded completely independently of any government, a review that was unconstrained by restrictive terms of reference which usually form government reports or indeed royal commissions. The purpose of the inquiry is not to point the finger of blame at any individual, any agency, any government. Indeed, the panel which I chair has a keen appreciation that governments were having to make decisions in a fog of uncertainty about the scale and the severity and consequences of a local pandemic. There was no playbook available, either to ministers or to public servants. Nevertheless, the foundations shared a firm belief that there needs to be an independent non-partisan report that can assess with hindsight what was right about Australia’s response, what improved over time and what significant mistakes were made in planning, design, delivery and communicating policy. 

It seems to me the emergence of such publicly oriented activities undertaken by not-for-profit organisations supported by philanthropy are clearly in the public benefit. By their actions they raise awareness of the increasingly precarious condition of democratic traditions and liberal values of tolerance, and freedom of speech and freedom of enquiry and equality before the law that underpins Australia’s form of representative and responsible parliamentary government. And indeed, civil society.        

This is an edited extract from a keynote address at the Philanthropy Australia national conference 2022.

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