KEYNOTE ADDRESS – AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY
PHILANTHROPY MEETS PARLIAMENT SUMMIT 2019
PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA
WEDNESDAY, 18 SEPTEMBER 2019
The obituary was blunt: ‘Sir Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people than ever before, died yesterday’. There was just one problem - Alfred Nobel was very much alive. It was his brother Ludwig who had died. So Alfred Nobel had a rare opportunity to see how the world thought of his life. He had no wife, no children - just an obituary sitting in front of him, which read ‘The Merchant of Death is dead’. Nobel had made his fortune by inventing dynamite, which revolutionized not just the mining and construction industries, but also the armaments sector. When he read his premature obituary, he was 54 years old.
In his remaining years, Nobel focused on philanthropy. His will set aside 94 per cent of his estate to establish the Nobel Prizes. Today that gift is worth more than half a billion Australian dollars. The Nobel Prizes in Chemistry, Literature, Peace, Physics, Medicine and Economics are considered the most prestigious prizes in their fields.
Major philanthropic gifts often stem from thinking about how we'll be remembered. I met recently with Rabbi Dovid Slavin, who with his wife Laya established Our Big Kitchen in Bondi. He told me that instead of dictating to donors, he asked them what's important to them. Rabbi Slavin says that they will come back and say that it's important to reduce poverty, to promote understanding across cultures, to strengthen communities. He’ll then reply ‘that's great - we're doing exactly that here, so if you donate to us, then we will implement your wishes’. He says mischievously ‘really, they should be thanking me for taking their money’.
Philanthropy is part of a good life, and this is the most generous roomful of people in Parliament House today. Many of you have been appropriately rewarded with Australian honours for your service to our community. Under the leadership of Sarah Davies, Philanthropy Australia has played a vital role through the public debate. Over this past six years I've been Labor’s point-person on charities and not-for-profits. I’ve valued your insights and look forward to working with you over this parliamentary term as Shadow Assistant Minister for Charities.
At this year’s election, Philanthropy Australia set out the sector’s ten key priorities. It is those priorities that I want to focus on today.
On the issue of advocacy, Philanthropy Australia wrote ‘In recent years a negative atmosphere has been created for charities undertaking advocacy. This needs to change’. I couldn't agree more. While the Coalition has churned through seven different ministers responsible for charities, there has been one point of consistency and that's been attacks on advocacy. Attacks on the right of legal charities to advocate on law reform. Attacks on the rights of social services charities to advocate on poverty and disadvantage. Attacks on the rights of environmental charities to work on issues of climate change and deforestation. Attacks on the rights of international charities to do their work with global partners. It's a view that charities should be seen, but not heard. It's a view that I fundamentally reject. I think of that famous quote from Archbishop Camara - ‘when I give food to the poor they call me a saint, when I ask why the poor have no food they call me a communist’.
We welcome your views in the political debate. The view of Labor is that there should be a very strong role for advocacy. Charities bring a special expertise and understanding of the challenges that Australia faces and those voices are vital to political debate. We welcome your voices in the political conversation.
Philanthropy Australia also spoke about the need for ‘an effective and responsive ACNC’. Again, I agree strongly. My side of politics created the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission. But for a five year period from 2011 to 2016, the Coalition's formal policy was to scrap it. The Coalition wanted to scrap the one-stop-shop regulator recommended by more than a dozen bipartisan inquiries. Having failed in their quest to scrap it, the Coalition appointed as ACNC head somebody who made his career as a charity critic rather than a supporter and advocate of the work the charities do.
It's been a year now since the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission review was handed down and we're still no closer to knowing what the government intends to do. In my view there is a vital role for the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission in working in partnership with charities on issues such as effective altruism, transparency, ensuring we don't see the sorts of scandals that have besieged the British philanthropic sector over recent years. The charities commission should be working more closely with states and territories to remove duplicate regulation, and to ensure that charities spend a minimum amount of time on paperwork and a maximum amount of time fulfilling their goals.
That of course brings me to another of your asks around fixed fundraising. Philanthropy Australia's election document said: ‘Australia's framework for regulating fundraising charities and other not for profit organisations is not fit for purpose. Fundraising regulation needs to be reformed, to reduce red tape while maintaining protections for donors.’
In February of this year, the Standing Select Committee into Charitable Fundraising in the 21st Century, chaired by Senator Catryna Bilyk, found that under the current fundraising laws charities face a paperwork burden every year of around $15 million. So let's put that another way. Every month that reform is delayed, a million dollars that could have been spent on the goals of charities is wasted on compliance with our outdated fundraising laws. That's money that has to be raised from philanthropists, but doesn't get spent on the goals of charities.
The last time I checked, no one ever registered a charity with the goal of just seeing how much fun it would be to spend a week registering with every different state and territory body to raise money. And I might be wrong - do feel free to raise your hands if you disagree - but I'm fairly sure no philanthropist ever gave a cheque thinking ‘this will be great, this should be spent on my organisation complying with 20th century fundraising laws’. The committee urged parliament to reform those laws and it set a two year timetable. Now it was a committee chaired by my Labor colleague Catryna Bilyk and including Labor Senator David Smith. But it was also signed onto by Liberal senators Eric Abetz and Amanda Stoker, the UAP's Brian Burston and the Greens’ Rachel Siewert.
The Bilyk report has set the clock ticking, but the government has failed to act. Indeed when consumer affairs ministers came together at the end of last month, fixing fundraising wasn't on the agenda. The government is only bringing consumer affairs ministers together once a year, so that means a full year delay. How much will that cost your sector? Well, if I ask Amanda Stoker or Eric Abetz, they'd give me a clear answer - $15 million. That's money you should not be spending on compliance. We should get fixing fundraising done. Some things in life are hard. This is not one of them.
Finally, I heartily concur with another one of your asks: ‘supporting better collaboration between government and philanthropy’. It is absolutely vital that we have a more productive conversation around building a culture of giving. Malcolm McCusker when he was Governor of Western Australia did a great deal with young people to build a culture of giving. My three sons - ages 6, 10 and 12 - are nicer people when they have an opportunity to think about others.
Philanthropy is important in sustaining Australia's civic culture. It's vital in generating a sense of innovation, which sometimes can be lacking through government programs. But it's also critical to who we are as a society, to building that stronger sense of civic community which has been fraying. I wrote a book in 2010 titled Disconnected, about Australia's challenge in social capital, showing that membership of Scouts, Guides, Rotary, Lions had waned. Church attendance had dropped off. Volunteering and charitable giving rates were not where they should have been. The work that you do and the work that we can do as government in partnering with philanthropy is absolutely vital to Australia's future.
I finish where I began. There is a natural human instinct to worry too much about what the journalist David Brooks has called ‘CV virtues’ and too little about what he calls ‘eulogy virtues’. We fret too much about the awards and the promotions, but not enough about how we treat others and about how we'll be remembered. A greater focus on the big questions in life and the legacies we leave, on how we want to leave Australia a better country, is absolutely vital. Thank you for the work you do, thank you for being here today. I look forward to taking your questions.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.