The war on charities rages on - Speech, House of Representatives

HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, 17 OCTOBER 2018

I move the second reading amendment circulated in my name:

That all the words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House:

(1) notes that the Coalition Government has had six Ministers responsible for charities over the last five years; and

(2) expresses its disapproval of the appointment of prominent anti-charity advocate Gary Johns as chair of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission”.

Labor will be supporting this bill in the House. Schedule 1 of the bill makes a number of technical refinements to the income tax law so that the new tax system for managed investment trusts operates as intended. Following recommendations made by the Board of Taxation in its report on the review of tax arrangements applying to managed investment trusts in 2016, the new tax system for attributed, managed investment trusts was enacted. Labor supported that legislation. The new tax system was designed to increase certainty, provide flexibility, reduce compliance costs for managed investment trusts and improve the competitiveness of Australia's fund management industry.

The amendments in this bill clarify the operation of the income tax law applying to managed investment trusts and attributed managed investment trusts and make a number of modifications. Those amendments are technical and non-controversial. Schedule 2 updates the list of specifically listed deductible gift recipients, adding the Australian Sports Foundation charitable fund, Australian Women Donors Network, Paul Ramsay Foundation Ltd, the Q Foundation Trust, the Smile like Drake Foundation Ltd and the Victorian Pride Centre Ltd. Labor supports the listing of these organisations.

Schedule 3 provides that entities that promote Indigenous languages may be endorsed as deductible gift recipients. The income tax law currently provides support to cultural organisations that have a principal purpose of, among other things, promoting the arts of Indigenous peoples, but prior to these amendments this category didn't include organisations with a principal purpose of promoting the languages of Indigenous Australians. Given that there are estimated to be 250 original Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages and over 600 dialects, it is vital that we as a nation put measures in place to prevent the loss of these languages. One such measure is to extend deductible gift recipient status to organisations with a principal purpose of promoting Indigenous languages. I had many differences with the former Prime Minister, but one thing that I did admire about Malcolm Turnbull was his use of Ngunnawal language in this place in delivering the Closing The Gap statements. It is a small way in which we, as non-Indigenous Australians, can acknowledge the rich Indigenous culture on this land, a culture going back 60,000 years, tens of thousands of years before the civilisations of ancient Greece and Rome, and joined to the present day through those traditional Indigenous languages. Organisations that support those languages should be supported in this way.

Schedule 4 makes changes to the Competition and Consumer Act, removing the exemption for conditional licensing or assignment of intellectual property rights such as patents, registered designs, copyright and eligible circuit layout rights from prohibitions on restrictive trade practices. The Productivity Commission's Intellectual Property Arrangements Inquiry Report and the Harper review recommended that this subsection be repealed, largely because the rationale for the exemption has fallen away. The number of arrangements that are affected by removal of the exemption is likely to be small. Intellectual property rights do not of themselves have significant competition implications, and indeed the repeal of subsection 51(3) brings Australia into line with jurisdictions such as the United States, Canada and Europe, which do not provide an exemption from competition law for conditions of intellectual property transactions. In those jurisdictions, and in ours following the passage of this bill, intellectual property assignments and licences and their conditions will be assessed under competition law in the same way as we assess other commercial transactions.

I come now to the substance of the second reading amendment.

We read in The Australian newspaper today that the charities commissioner, Gary Johns, has raised questions about the work done by environmental charities. This is not the first time that Mr Johns has criticised environmental charities. He said, for example, in The Australian, on 8 April 2015, when speaking about parliament's inquiry into environmental charities, that that inquiry 'should question the presumption of public benefit in environmental charities'. And today in The Australian, the head of the charities commission has said:

What I will say is that if governments don’t like the present regime, which is built around a purposes test, then they have to have something else. And that’s probably an activities test.

If governments want charities to butt out of partisan politics, then they'll have to think about whether the purposes test is strong enough.

So we are seeing here the charities commissioner reverting to type, reverting to his role not as a supporter of charities but as a chief critic of charities. We have seen from the charities commissioner a whole host of attacks on charities. He said in The Australian on 2 December 2014: 'The Abbott government should deny charity status to the enemies of progress.' He said in his book, The Charity Ball, 'The idea of public benefit needs to be trimmed and tested'. He said in that book, 'there is a great deal of impure altruism in the charities business.' He has attacked Indigenous reconciliation charity Recognise, describing it as 'the officially sanctioned propaganda arm of the Australian government.' He has criticised beyondblue, an organisation supported by the vast majority of members here on both sides of the House, as being an organisation which 'does no dignity to the national debate'. That's what the head of the charities commission says about beyondblue.

The charities commissioner is quoted today as saying, 'You don't want a commissioner who runs around like a bull at a gate.' Indeed, it is not the first time that he has used a bovine analogy when it comes to referring to public policy issues. He said on The Bolt Report on 12 July 2015, 'Look, a lot of poor women in this country, a large proportion of whom are Aboriginal, are used as cash cows, right.' That is our charities commissioner, and this is why the head of the Community Council of Australia described putting him in charge of the charities commission 'as a bizarre appointment' which 'sends a signal to charities the government is out to get them.'

This government have now gone through, as my second reading amendment details, six ministers responsible for charities. They spent five years trying to shut down the charities commission. They have waged war not just on the environmental charities, as we've seen in inquiries involving the Liberal backbench, but also attacks on social service charities with the re-introduction of gag clauses, a measure which Senator Pratt has spoken out against strongly. There were then attacks on legal charities for their attempt to become engaged in the public policy debate. This is a government that believe that charities should have the ability to serve soup in a soup kitchen but not to talk about poverty and inequality; to plant trees but not talk about the root causes of deforestation; to help a client in a community legal centre but not talk about the root causes of rising incarceration.

Mr Johns was indeed a Labor member of parliament last century but he is no more Labor today than Billy Hughes was at the end of his career. The fact is that the government is continuing its war on charities. We have had two open letters to the Prime Minister complaining about attacks on charities, the most recent signed by Volunteering Australia, Carers Australia, the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Community Council of Australia, Justice Connect, Philanthropy Australia and the Starlight Foundation. 

The Liberals are great at bringing charities together. The only problem is, when they bring charities together, they are bringing together charities united against the Liberal government. We have seen possibly the only time in Australian history that GetUp! and the IPA have signed on to resist the same measure, which is the government's attempt to include charities in its ban on foreign political donations. That brought together the Hands Off Our Charities campaign and led to significant reform of those laws. Again, this was charities having to spend time campaigning against the A-T-M government, rather than getting on with helping the vulnerable.

We've seen a survey from Pro Bono Australia which found that two-thirds of Australian charities find it harder to be heard by the federal government than they did five years ago. Part of the reason for that is they don't know who to speak to. They've had six ministers in five years. It has been a revolving door of ministers responsible for charities in the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government. They have changed charities ministers twice as fast as they've changed prime ministers—and that's saying something! Now we've had appointed as head of the charities commission—following on from Susan Pascoe, a woman well-respected across the sector—Gary Johns, whose appointment is akin to putting Ned Kelly in charge of bank security. It's akin to putting Bronwyn Bishop in charge of transport for politicians.

The fact is that Gary Johns is somebody whose appointment was announced in the hours after this House's historic same-sex marriage vote. People in this House will be familiar with the expression 'taking out the trash'. It is when governments look for a moment in which the public is focused on another issue to make an announcement they don't want to draw attention to. Well, the appointment of Gary Johns fits that description to a tee. Making that announcement in the hours following the same-sex marriage vote shows how nervous the government were about the response that they knew charities would deliver. This is somebody who believes in the scrapping of the Charities Act 2013.

The House should be clear about what happens if we scrap the 2013 Charities Act: we take charities law back to the 1600s. I'm sure there were good things about the 1600s. It was, after all, the Shakespearean era and there were beautiful things going on at the Globe at that moment. But I'm not so sure that our charities want to be regulated by charities law of the 1600s, and yet that's what the head of our charities commission believes. As Brad Chilcott, the founder of Welcome to Australia, said, 'The message that charities should not be involved in advocacy is akin to saying you can plant a tree but you can't protect a forest.'

We on this side of the House don't want to put a velvet rope across the entry to the public square. We believe that Indigenous charities should have a role in talking about Indigenous policy and about redressing disadvantage. We on this side of the House believe that social services charities have a valuable role to play. Indeed, I pay tribute to UnitingCare, whose important report mapping the geography of child social exclusion came down this week, Anti-Poverty Week. It is another example of what you get when you're not scared about charities getting involved in the public domain.

When those opposite see charities talking about rising carbon emissions, about the threats to the Great Barrier Reef, they don't deal with the root causes of those problems. No, they put their tail between their legs and look to their hand-picked, unpopular-with-charities charities commissioner to try to shut down those voices. But the fact is we have Australian emissions rising and, as every child in every school around Australia can tell you, Australia needs to tackle climate change. We need to tackle climate emissions, and attempting to shut down the advocacy work of important environmental charities is simply putting your head in the sand. Those targeted, according to The Australian's story, are Greenpeace, the Australian Conservation Foundation and 350.org. These organisations are no cheerleaders for the Australian Labor Party, but we on this side of the House are robust enough to believe in a healthy public debate.

We also support stronger reform to charities laws. We support the fix fundraising campaign. We support the notion of the charities commission as a one-stop shop, removing duplicate state and territory reporting. We've held 16 Reconnected forums across Australia, with more than 1,600 charities' leaders, talking to them about rebuilding social capital in Australia.

Labor wants to work with charities. The coalition are waging a war on charities, and at the helm of that war is the charities commissioner himself, Gary Johns.

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.