The Coalition's very uncharitable move
The Age, September 11 2017
What unites St John Ambulance, the Arab Council Australia, Musica Viva, Oxfam, Arthritis Australia and Christian Ministry Advancement? Why, it’s the Turnbull Government, of course. But not in a good way.
In June, heads of these charities, and more than 100 others, wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. In it, they expressed their frustration at his government’s shabby treatment of Susan Pascoe, who has headed the Australian Charities and Not for Profits Commission since its inception.
The issue came to a head when Michael Sukkar, the fifth Coalition minister in four years to have responsibility for the charities commission, refused to meet with Ms Pascoe and her fellow commissioners, and then announced that she would not be reappointed.
If this was just about getting rid of a talented public servant, Australia’s charities might not be up in arms. What prompted their open letter is the fear that the Coalition is about to resume the ‘charity war’ that prevailed from 2011 to 2016.
Some history. The charities commission was created by the Gillard Government in 2011, following more than a dozen independent inquiries that called for such a body. The charities commission provides transparency for taxpayers, efficiency for charities and accountability for donors.
Yet despite the fact that the commission was established to reduce the reporting burden on charities, the Coalition pledged to kill it. Ironically, they used their ‘Red Tape Repeal Day’ to try and demolish a body whose goal was to reduce paperwork for charities. The Coalition even introduced legislation to parliament in an attempt to scrap the charities commission.
Surveys consistently show that four-fifths of charities support the Australian Charities and Not for Profits Commission. But for reasons I could never quite understand, it took a five year campaign, including an open letter to Prime Minister Tony Abbott from more than 40 major charities, before the Turnbull Government finally reversed its position in March 2016. That five years of uncertainty placed considerable stress on the organisation, which experienced up to 25 percent annual staff turnover during the time that it was slated for abolition.
Throughout this time, Susan Pascoe ran the charities commission with aplomb, receiving accolades from public servants and charities alike. She won a number of significant awards, including the Outstanding Contribution in Public Administration Award last year. As advisory board chair Tony Stuart put it, under her leadership, the charities commission ‘not only survived – but thrived’. It was more than could be said for the revolving door of ministers who had responsibility for the commission, including Kevin Andrews, Scott Morrison and Christian Porter.
There was a brief chink of light some months ago, when the charities commission’s minister was Michael McCormack. In public forums, Mr MrCormack praised the charities commission, and discussed his plans to work constructively with it to reduce the paperwork burden on the nation’s non-profits.
Alas, the turnstile has spun once more, and the latest charities commission minister, Michael Sukkar, is evidently not trusted by the sector. The open letter expressing concern about the way he has handled the charities commission is also signed by Volunteering Australia, Carers Australia, the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Community Council of Australia, Justice Connect, Philanthropy Australia and the Starlight Children’s Foundation.
Sadly, I can see why they don’t have faith that the Turnbull Government will keep its word. We’ve seen reactionary forces in the Coalition wrest control of policies from same-sex marriage to climate change. Now, it looks like those same forces may be attempting to take charities regulation back to the dark ages.
Charities have strongly backed the Australian Charities and Not for Profits Commission ever since it was established in 2011. They have better things to do than to keep fighting for it.
A government that truly cared about charities would be getting on with fixing fundraising, removing duplicate reporting requirements, and strengthening the charities commission.
It’s time Malcolm Turnbull put the visigoths back in their box, and started supporting our charities.
Andrew Leigh is the Shadow Minister for Charities and Not-for-Profits.