Guide Dogs lose their way

Posted on 09 May 2022

By Denis Moriarty, group managing director, Our Community

Frydenberg Karen Hayes Guide Dogs

Everybody (close enough) likes dogs, and everybody wants to help blind people, so a charity that works to provide guide dogs for vision-impaired people has to do pretty badly to become unpopular, and it’s mildly impressive that Guide Dogs Victoria seems to be managing it.

What has happened is that Karen Hayes, the CEO, has endorsed the Liberal candidate for Kooyong and current federal treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, appearing in his ads carrying a cute puppy and identifying herself as “Karen, Chief Executive Officer, Guide Dogs Victoria”. In the heated atmosphere of an election, this has enraged many of Frydenberg’s opponents and others.

Alarmed, the board released a statement saying it had "no prior knowledge of the distribution of this material and does not endorse it". It made Frydenberg take it down the ads, started an inquiry, and stood down the CEO.

I don’t number myself among this government’s fans, as it hasn’t done much for the community sector reform agenda and won’t get my vote. And I’m not quite such a fan of cute puppies that I’d let them change my politics, but I’m still not sure that it’s a good idea to ride such a close herd on the political activities of employees of charities.

The starting off place, surely, is that any Australian citizen has a right to express any political opinion they want. Like any principle in a (small-l) liberal society, that right is subject to a number of constraints. Public servants, particularly, have had that right almost entirely excised by the High Court, which found in 2019 that a public servant could legitimately be fired for an anonymous Twitter post expressing a contentious opinion.

DenisMoriarty_CIC2021_PennyS
Our Community group managing director Denis Moriarty

The reason, apparently, is that “it was not appropriate for a department employee to make unofficial public comment that is, or is perceived as, compromising the employee's ability to fulfil his or her duties professionally in an unbiased manner.” I can see the point of this (though when I worry about bias I’d have to say that I’m much more suspicious of the minister than their departmental officers), but I can’t see how you would express political bias in deciding who gets a guide dog and who doesn’t. What’s the harm?

In practical terms, the harm is that many donors to Guide Dogs Victoria will slam their chequebooks or bequests shut, which is why the board is dropping the boom, and that’s certainly a consideration. Beyond that, people have been muttering about complaining to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC). The ACNC says charitable organisations will be disqualified for "promoting or opposing a political party or candidate for political office".

ACNC commissioner Gary Johns said, "You can sing from the rooftops about your charitable purpose, that you're in favour of this or that, but not about candidates or political parties."

I doubt whether Johns will act, though, because it wasn’t Guide Dogs Victoria that endorsed Frydenberg – it was Hayes, even though Frydenberg has admittedly done as much as he could to obscure that fact. Guide Dogs Victoria has distanced itself from the whole thing.

But if it hadn’t? Where does one draw the line between having your employees carrying placards and your organisation being held accountable? This is, after all, not entirely a new thing; Hayes appeared in Frydenberg’s campaign material during the 2019 election and the board plainly let that pass.

How do we differentiate the employer and the board? Should all endorsements carry a clarifying line? “This gushing tribute doesn’t represent the views of my board, and this cute puppy actually votes Green”? That’s a fairly widely spread precaution. And if we should have such a caution, does the responsibility for seeing it’s included rest on the puppy holder or the candidate? The latter, surely.

In my experience employees of Australian not-for-profits tend to the left of politics rather than the right, which is why the government is so keen to play favourites, and a sector-wide vow of silence is going to hurt rather than help our attempts to change a society that calls on private donors to fund vital elements of disability support.

Hayes has arguably gone over a pretty fuzzy line, but I believe that advocacy should be given a fair bit of slack.

And if employees should be able (in most cases) to speak out freely, so should the community groups they work for. The entire sector has repeatedly called for the right to speak out on issues that matter whether it’s climate change, disability support, gender equality or social justice.

Sometimes that means supporting parties and the politicians, sometimes persuading them, and sometimes criticising them.

That’s why we’re backing a national competition to reward community groups that engage with political candidates. The PoliPix competition asks groups to get the best snaps of themselves convincing candidates of the value of their mission, with the winners collecting $2000 every week of the campaign.

Denis Moriarty is group managing director of OurCommunity.com.au, a social enterprise helping Australia's 600,000 not-for-profits.

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