Keep the charities commission

In today's Australian, I have an op-ed arguing that the government should keep the charities commission.
Scrap Charities Register, and Say Goodbye to Giving, The Australian, 20 March 2014

When doorknockers with a children’s education charity Care4Kids rang the doorbell of homes across Melbourne and Sydney, they got a warm reception.

Nearly a million dollars was raised for ‘work helping children with cancer, leukaemia, other illnesses and learning disabilities whose education has been compromised’.

But there have been questions raised about exactly how the money raised by the charity actually benefited children at risk; the people it was intended to help. There is little information to show exactly where the money went.

Alas, this is not an isolated incident. Formed at the end of 2012, the independent Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission (ACNC) received 202 complaints in its first year, including 48 for fraud or criminal activity.

This goes to show just how important a well regulated charitable sector is. In the same way that ASIC provides investors with the confidence they need to buy shares in companies, the ACNC provides donors with the confidence that registered charities are actually performing charitable works.

It is not only the direct victims of fraud who suffer when a charity defrauds donors, it is the charitable sector as a whole. For every story you hear about a dodgy charity, you’ll be just that little bit less likely to donate to the volunteers who rattle tins for the Salvos or Surf Life Savers.

Anything that leads Australians to give less is a tragedy. The inexcusable actions of a few dodgy organisations are being allowed to undermine the fantastic work undertaken every day by the huge majority of Australian charities.

This is one of the key reasons why the former Labor Government established the ACNC in 2012 after an extensive period of consultation. It was recommended by the Productivity Commission and the Henry Tax Review, and supported by the charity sector.

The ACNC helps charities strengthen their transparency and accountability so the public can have confidence in the sector and the good work they do.

It does this by making charities and not-for-profits visible with a national register of charities. The register is a major weapon against scammers taking advantage of your goodwill. If donors are worried about whether a charity is legitimate or not, they can simply carry out a free check of the ACNC’s register: an online database nearly 60,000 charities. The register contains information such as a charity’s tax status and where it is based. In coming months the register will contain more information about charities, including their activities and financials.

The ACNC also helps our charities with governance, legal training and advice. Many charities have told me how much they appreciate the ACNC’s friendly approach and expertise.

The ACNC will reduce the duplication that can arise in a federal system. Thanks to the ACNC, the Australian Capital Territory and South Australia have said that they will exempt nationally registered charities from also having to register in their jurisdictions. Other states would do well to follow. Our reforms make it much simpler for charities to run their organisation – so they can spend less time filling out forms, and more time in the community.

The ACNC is administering a Charity Passport underpinned by a ‘report-once, use-often’ reporting framework. Charities that work with different government departments will find it easier to do their reporting thanks to the Charity Passport. Scrap the ACNC, and you lose the Charity Passport.

Every day, we hear the Abbott Government claiming to be cutting red tape. Yet ironically, scrapping the ACNC means abolishing its red tape reduction directorate – the very people in charge of reducing regulatory burdens on the charitable sector.

The Abbott Government is heading up a very small minority of critics of the ACNC. According to a recent survey, four out of five charities support the work the ACNC is doing.

Over 40 charities, including the RSPCA, Lifeline and the Hillsong Church, have signed on to an open letter to keep the ACNC. As World Vision’s Tim Costello notes, the ACNC ‘underpins the consumer benefit to charities.’ Carolyn Kitto of anti-slavery charity Stop the Traffik calls it ‘a dream come true for small charities’, and points out that the ACNC ‘has cut the red tape dramatically’ for her organisation.

As the Community Council of Australia has warned, abolishing the ACNC would be a sign that the government is not interested in the views of the charity sector. It would harm charities, who will lose visibility and governance support. And it would be bad for the public who will be more exposed to fraud and scams.

Published in The Australian

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8/1 Torrens Street, Braddon ACT 2612 | 02 6247 4396 | Andrew.Leigh.MP@aph.gov.au