PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA
THURSDAY, 7 DECEMBER 2017
SUBJECTS: Turnbull Government’s decision to appoint charity critic Gary Johns as head of the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission.
SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER, ANDREW LEIGH: Thank you for coming out this morning, my name is Andrew Leigh and I am the Shadow Minister for Charities and Not-for-Profits. We're seeing today the latest salvo on the Government's war on charities. Since coming to office, the Abbott and Turnbull Governments have attempted to destroy the charities commission, a body recommended by more than a dozen independent inquiries and supported by more than four out of five charities. From 2011 to 2016 the Coalition tried to destroy it. Over the period that they have been in office, the Government has had no fewer than five different ministers responsible for the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission (ACNC).
Their war on charities has been waged on multiple fronts. They've tried to take charities law back to the 1600s. They've tried to get rid of the charities commission, they've tried to shut down the ability of environmental and legal charities to advocate. They put gag clauses in social services agreements. There's no wonder that we've seen two open letters from the sector calling on the Government to stop their war on charities. Only last week, 25 charities heads were here in Canberra calling on the Turnbull Government to stop attacking charities.
Indeed, we've seen under Michael Sukkar, the fifth minister responsible for the ACNC, bumbling ineptitude. He failed to meet with the board of the charities commission. He failed to reappoint Susan Pascoe - a broadly respected head of the charities commission who the minister today acknowledged had been doing “a good job”.
But the appointment of Gary Johns to head the charities commission takes the war on charities to a whole new level.
Putting Gary Johns in charge of the charities commission is like putting Ned Kelly in charge of bank security. This is somebody who has been a trenchant critic of charities throughout his life. We've seen from Gary Johns an attitude towards charities which is unbecoming of the head of the body which is aimed to regulate them.
It's true Mr Johns was a Labor MP last century, but he is no more Labor than Billy Hughes was at the end of his career. Michael Sukkar said that he hadn't read Gary Johns' work. So, let me go through a few of the examples of things that Mr Johns has said. In his book, The Charity Ball published in 2014 he wrote "there is a great deal of impure altruism in the charities business". He's criticised the Indigenous reconciliation charity Recognise, referring to it as "the officially sanctioned propaganda arm of the Australian Government". He's written "the idea of public benefit needs to be trimmed and tested". He's attacked Beyond Blue for their work on tackling the scourge of mental ill health among gay and lesbian teenagers. He's called on the Government to abolish the Charities Act 2013. Let's be clear on what it means if you abolish the Charities Act: that means you take charities law back to the 1600s. That's what the new head of the charities commission believes. Dr Johns has said that "we should deny charity status to the enemies of progress". Who knows who he regards as “the enemies of progress”? Again, restricting charitable status is the focus of the new head of the charities commission.
More broadly, he has said that women who are not on contraception shouldn't receive income support. He believes that these women and their children should be taken off benefits. Dr Johns has described Aboriginal women on welfare as "cash cows". No amount of hyperbole can convey how extreme Dr Johns' views are on charities and on a variety of issues that charities advocate on. As David Crosbie, the head of the Community Council of Australia has said, Dr Johns’ appointment "sends a signal to charities that the Government is out to get them".
This appointment shows that Tony Abbott and Kevin Andrews are running the Turnbull Government. It is clearly not a merit based appointment. You only have to look at the qualifications of the two Assistant Commissioners to see people who are eminently better qualified to head the charities commission than Dr Johns is. They are two people who have extensive experience: in one case, not only in the Australian charities commission but also the British charities commission and in international charities regulation. They are people who have strong respect within the sector, not people who have been trenchant critics of charities.
Charities will be horrified by this appointment. This is somebody being appointed to head the charities commission who is a critic of theirs, not a supporter of theirs. This is like putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank. It’s like putting Ned Kelly in charge of bank security. If Malcolm Turnbull has any gumption, any leadership, he must step in today, overrule Michael Sukkar and announce that Gary Johns will not head the charities commission but that a new search will begin for a head of the charities commission who can demand respect across the sector.
Happy to take questions on this topic.
JOURNALIST: Andrew Leigh, we heard from Michael Sukkar this morning that is was in fact a panel in relation to the department and representatives outside of the political process who went through the 25 applicants for this job and recommended this particular applicant to go forward. So, is it fair for you to be calling on the government to make this change when it appears that he’s been given a thumbs up from within the public service?
LEIGH: You only have to judge this by the outcome. The choice of Dr Johns says everything about the priorities of the government. They can pretend that they’ve gone through some artifice of a process, but it is absolutely clear that no merit based process would select Gary Johns to head the charities commission.
JOURNALIST: Dr Johns has said this morning that his role is not to be a friend or a foe to charities, but to be a regulator and that despite his views in the past, he will follow the law in doing that job. Do you think that there is a way that he can have those views and be independent sand impartial?
LEIGH: Dr Johns has been a foe of charities. He has been one of the strongest critics of charities in Australia. He has attacked Indigenous charities. He has attacked mental health charities. He has attacked charities that attempt to engage in advocacy. That’s the thing about this government, they have a ‘charities should be seen and not heard’ approach. They think that charities are okay so long as they’re running soup kitchens, but once they start talking about poverty and inequality, they’re overstepping their mark and they should go back to the kitchen.
It’s that sort of anti-advocacy approach in legal charities, in environmental charities, in social service charities that characterises the worst aspects of this government, and which characterises Gary Johns’ views on charities throughout his career. A leopard doesn’t change its spots. Gary Johns will not cease being a foe to charities in this new role.
JOURNALIST: There is some criticism of the way the commission has operated in the past, in terms of a lack of transparency about who is being investigated while there’s been investigations going on. Would you like to see more transparency in the way that process happens, so that when there is something that is flagged, the general public knows that it is being investigated?
LEIGH: We can have a reasonable conversation around the margins about the work the charities commission does. The charities commission is a broadly well supported body which is why despite the Abbott and Turnbull Government spending five years trying to close it down the charities sector remained strong in support. Four out of five charities support the charities commission. It is a body which embodies transparency. Before we had the charities commission we had the tax office regulating charities and no clear idea as to which were legitimate charities. Now if somebody knocks on your door seeking a donation, you can go to acnc.gov.au and check out their bona fides. That's transparency in action. Susan Pascoe did a sterling job and indeed received independent awards for her work. Gary Johns is in no way a fit replacement for the extraordinary work that the charities commission's inaugural head, Susan Pascoe did. The Government needs to go back to the drawing board and find a suitable person to head the charities commission.
JOURNALIST: Dr Johns said this morning that on that website that he intends to break that data down further to enable people to search by children's cancer charity or homeless charity. Is that something you think will benefit from?
LEIGH: We can always talk about how to improve the public look-up function of the charities commission. Of course, I'm pleased that the Coalition has changed their view of wanting to get rid of the charities commission. But let's be honest, only one step away from wanting to kill the charities commission in its entirety is appointing Gary Johns to head it.
No other questions? Thanks everyone.