Labor will end the war on charities - Transcript, Melbourne

E&OE TRANSCRIPT

DOORSTOP

MELBOURNE

WEDNESDAY, 8 MAY 2019

SUBJECTS: Labor’s charity policy; the Coalition’s war on charities; News Limited’s attack on Bill Shorten’s mother; News Limited’s use of tax havens.

ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: Thanks very much everyone for coming along today. My name is Andrew Leigh, the Shadow Minister for Charities and Not-for-Profits. I'd like to thank SANE Australia for hosting us here today. I'm joined by my colleagues Mark Dreyfus, the Shadow Attorney-General, Fiona McLeod, our candidate for Higgins, and Josh Burns, our candidate for Macnamara. 

It's been a tough six years for Australia's charities. They have borne the brunt of a war on charities. We've seen the government go through six different ministers responsible for the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission. Over the course of 2011 to 2016, the government's goal was to scrap the ACNC. When they couldn't succeed with that, they put a charity critic in charge of the charity regulator.  The war on charities has prompted two open letters to successive prime ministers from the charity sector. A great deal of energy of Australia's great charities and not-for-profits has been chewed up in fighting against the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government's war on their work. 

Labor would take a different approach. Throughout our time in opposition, I've had sole responsibility for the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission. After the last election, Bill Shorten chose to create a frontbench position for charities. If we're elected we'll be the first government in Australian history to have a Minister for Charities. Today we're announcing Labor's charity policy. We would entrench in statute the right to advocate, because we know so many of our charities - legal, environmental and in the community sector - have a deep understanding of the problems facing Australia and the solutions to get us there. We’d work with charities to set up a not-for-profit Expert Reference Panel and a ‘Building Community - Building Capacity’ working group. We would engage with charities and with states and territories to fix fundraising, to get rid of a patchwork of fundraising laws that currently wastes the time of so many Australian charities and not-for-profits. I pay tribute to our colleague Catryna Bilyk for her important Senate report which has shown the way forward in fixing fundraising. While we've been working with charities over the course of recent years, we've also set up a series of Reconnected Forums. We’ve held 17 Reconnected Forums across Australia, meeting with more than 1500 charity and not-for-profit leaders to talk about the challenges facing civil society in Australia and how to work together to build social capital. That work is a great passion of mine, going back to the early 2000s when I worked with Robert Putnam on his experiences in building community in America, and it will be a priority for Labor under a Shorten Labor Government. 

Naturally, building community isn't something that any one person does alone. From Bill Shorten down, Labor members have a strong commitment to the community sector. Bill Shorten worked to help create the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission, and collaborated with the Every Australian Counts campaign to build the National Disability Insurance Scheme. And he's fundraised for Run For The Kids, another a marker of Bill's engagement with civil society. We have Mark Dreyfus here, who is heavily engaged with the Australian music sector and will say a few words in a moment about the importance of advocacy by community legal centres. Linda Burney and Jenny McAllister have worked carefully with our social services agencies, recognising the importance of getting certainty in funding and extending the duration of contracts. Andrew Giles has done vital work around loneliness. Here with me is Josh Burns, who has deep experience in the Jewish community and of course as the father of young Tia is actively involved in local playgroups. And Fiona McLeod whose work as the president of the Law Council of Australia really engages right across the legal sector. 

So from Labor you'll see an end to the war on charities and the start of a constructive, activist government working in partnership with Australia's great charities and not-for-profits to make their lives easier and to facilitate the vital work they do in fuelling our democratic conversation, in tackling big questions around inequality and social disadvantage, building a society which is more inclusive and more engaged with the arts and the environment. Labor sees a vibrant future for Australia's charities and not-for-profits. And I'm delighted to have so many of them joining us here for this important launch today. Let me hand over now to my colleague Mark Dreyfus to say a few words.

[applause]

MARK DREYFUS, SHADOW ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Thanks very much, Andrew. It's a pleasure to be here with Andrew, with Fiona McLeod, our candidate for Higgins and with Josh Burns, our candidate for Macnamara, to launch Labor's comprehensive set of policies for charities and not-for-profits. It’s a mark of the stability of the Shorten Opposition, which we hope soon will be transformed into the Shorten Labor Government, that Andrew's been able to work on this policy area throughout our time in opposition and you see that over and over again where frontbenchers have held the same shadow portfolios since 2013 and we've not only been stable, we’ve been a group who have produced policy in area after area. You see an example of it here today with the charity's policy that Andrew is launching and I'm very pleased to join with him in it. 

I wanted to add some comments just about one aspect of it, which is Labor's commitment to ensure that charities and not-for-profits, non-government organisations have the right to advocate. It is always seemed to us to be a complete absurdity to pursue, as the conservative side, as the right of Australian politics has done for years and years now - you can go back to the Howard Government to see the attempts that have been made by the Liberals, made by the Nationals to prevent charities and NGOs and not-for-profits from speaking out. Particularly that's been so in the environmental and access to justice area, where it's been actually enforced by this government against community legal centres, against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, against the Family Violence Prevention Legal Services - they have been prevented by a term in their funding contract from the Commonwealth from speaking out. There's been attempts made to change charity law - happily failed, at least one of those attempts failed in the High Court - but repeated assertions by Liberal and National ministers in the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government that somehow NGOs, not-for-profits, charities which are intimately involved in the areas that they work in should not be permitted to speak out, should not be permitted to participate in public debate, should not be permitted to make suggestions for law reform. It's an absurdity. 

Labor has always resolutely stood against it. We have in the package that we're announcing here today, as I said some of the measures are directed at ensuring that all of the organisations which form part of Australia's society can speak out, can make suggestions to local, state and federal governments about how the law might be changed, can make suggestions to local, state and federal governments as to how policy might be changed to further the aims of the organisation, that the organisations are established for. So I want to be as clear as I possibly can. Part of this package today is directed at ensuring that we put an end to the absurd suggestions now made for decades by the right of Australian politics that not-for-profits and charities and NGOs somehow are disqualified from speaking out. It's ending as soon as a Labor government is elected and I very sincerely hope that happens on the 18th of May. Thanks all for attending.

[applause]

LEIGH: Thank you, Mark. Just before we take your questions, I wanted to share some comments on another issue today. We’ve seen an extraordinary attack from today's Daily Telegraph on Bill Shorten's mother. I don't think it's any coincidence that when a party is taking to the election the most comprehensive set of policies on multinational tax reform that we find ourselves under fire from News Ltd. News Ltd mastheads from 2013 to 2017 paid zero corporate tax. News Ltd has in the past had dealings in the Cayman Islands. In 2015 it was reported that News Ltd was the sole company in the highest risk category for the Australian Taxation Office, prompting the Commissioner of Taxation to say ‘they've not had an interest in being open with us, in discussing any of their affairs with us prior to their doing transactions’. So it's not surprising to see today's attacks, deeply disappointing as they are. Happy to take questions. 

JOURNALIST: So would you introduce any changes or try and get them to pay the greater share of tax then?

LEIGH: We have a series of comprehensive multinational tax reforms. We’d close debt deduction loopholes and crack down on the use of royalty payments to shift profits to tax havens like the Cayman Islands. We'd ensure the ATO has the resources it needs to go after tax wrongdoers, after having had more than 4000 staff cut out of the agency. We'd make sure there's proper transparency through country by country reporting, a requirement to report tax haven dealings to the stock market and working with superannuation funds to develop guidelines for tax haven investments. So yes, a Shorten Labor Government would take a very different approach to tax havens than the Morrison government has. 

JOURNALIST: So would you be targeting News Corp?

LEIGH: It's not about targeting. It's about making sure we've got fair rules across the board and that tax is paid when it's due. We certainly haven't seen from the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison Government a willingness to make sure the top end of town pays their fair share of tax. We know that two dollars out of every five of multinational profits now pass through tax havens. Tax havens are bleeding the global tax system dry. If you want to be serious about real tax reform, it requires taking on tax havens.

JOURNALIST: Well considering they are using the Cayman Islands, do you think they are not paying their full tax?

LEIGH: I don't have access to the individual affairs of News Ltd. I only know what's been publicly reported, which I’ve outlined to you.

JOURNALIST: Considering there's still a long way to go until the election day, are you expecting worse from News Ltd?

LEIGH: I certainly hope not. I hope that given the dignified response that we saw from Mr Shorten today that this issue is put to rest.

JOURNALIST: Mark, can I just ask you, you’ve got two candidates behind you based in this South Melbourne like you. How do you see their chances?

DREYFUS: I think that Josh Burns and Fiona McLeod who are standing behind me, the candidates respectively for Macnamara and Higgins, are truly excellent candidates. In Josh's case, replacing Michael Danby who served as member for Melbourne Ports for many many years. In Fiona's case, trying to take a seat that, let's be serious, should not even be in contention. It's been thought of as a blue ribbon Liberal seat for a very, very, very long time and it's a mark of the drop of support rightly for the Liberal Party that Higgins is seen as potentially a winnable seat by Labor. Fiona’s come into the campaign late, she's campaigned with immense force and vigour in the weeks that she's been the candidate. She's done a fantastic job. We think that we have a chance in Higgins. We think we're going to win in Macnamara and that's why we're going to keep campaigning every single minute in both seats right up to 6 pm on the 18th of May. But it's a mark of the drop in support for the Liberal Party which has been revealed not just by polling, but I can say to you anecdotally at pre poll stations right across Melbourne, certainly right across the south east of Melbourne - which is the area that I'm most familiar with and the area my own seat’s located in - we’re getting people coming up saying ‘I used to vote Liberal but at this election I've changed, at this election I want to throw them out’. It's that kind of sentiment that we're seeing at people. And of course more than a million Australians voted, 7 per cent of people who voted in my seat, something like 10 per cent I think Josh in Macnamara have already voted. That's perhaps also a marker of people wanting to get to the polls actually to turf this terrible government out of office.

JOURNALIST: There's been some suggestion in the past few weeks that Labor would win another possibly five seats in Victoria. Do you think that kind of prediction’s on the money?

DREYFUS: I think that Labor is in line to win a number of seats in Victoria. There was of course a redistribution that was announced in July which worsened Labor's position in some seats, including mine which became of more marginal seat, but equally made a number of other seats much more within reach and I have in mind Dunkley and Corangamite which are presently Liberal held. And of course, the redistribution created a new seat, Fraser, in the north west of Melbourne which is highly likely to be won by Labor. So you start with those three and then you can look at a range of other seats which we see as being within reach.

JOURNALIST: There have also been some suggestions and media along the way that three year terms aren’t long enough and there should be fixed four year terms. How do you feel about that?

DREYFUS: It’s Labor policy that there should be, national Labor policy that we should move to fixed four year terms for the House of Representatives. The last time Australians were asked about this at a referendum back in the 80s, the proposal failed. But since then, every state and territory has moved to adopt four year terms. Certainly in Victoria, we've had four year terms now in place since the 2002 election was held up . Four year terms were put in place by the Kennett Government during the 90s. We had a slightly faltering start because for the first couple of terms it was possible for the government to go early and Kennett did, much to his cost in 1999 where he lost. That was after three years only. I think Australians have got used to the idea of fixed four year terms. It does require a change to the Australian Constitution, because the term of the House of Representatives is fixed in the Constitution or rather not fixed - it’s left to the discretion of the prime minister, but it's given a maximum time of three years and three months between elections. It's my personal hope that at some point in the not too distant future, we will be as a government considering a referendum to go to four year terms for the House of Representatives. The reason I am not able to be more definitive about it than that is that our actual constitutional reform commitment which we make and have made very, very directly is that in the next term of the parliament if Labor is elected to government to govern on the 18th of May, we are going to hold a referendum to put the voice, an Indigenous voice in the Australian Constitution. So that's the topic for the referendum that we will hold first.

JOURNALIST: It’s the last one for me. You’ll both be guaranteeing you’ll serve full terms if re-elected?

LEIGH: Absolutely.

DREYFUS: Absolutely. It's a strange question. 

JOURNALIST: Thanks. 

LEIGH: Thanks very much.

ENDS

Authorised by Noah Carroll ALP Canberra.


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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | Andrew.Leigh.MP@aph.gov.au | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.