When red tape strangles our charities, we all lose
The Herald Sun - 17 September, 2018
“It has been a nightmare”, reported one charity worker. “It was extremely time consuming to research all the different requirements state by state... each of the states need something different to satisfy the requirements for an application. It is such burden for organisations like ours who are doing our best to help those most in need of help.”
What nefarious activity was the charity involved in? Nothing more than a nationwide online fundraising campaign. Yet because our fundraising laws were written in the pre-internet era, they require charities to seek permission from six states plus the Australian Capital Territory (only the Northern Territory does not have fundraising laws).
In an era when state boundaries are more porous than ever, it’s an anachronism that charities seeking to give their fundraising efforts nationwide reach have to jump through seven regulatory hoops. Sometimes the result is that charities simply curtail their fundraising. Justice Connect, which has spearheaded the campaign for fundraising reform, gives the example of a charity that planned to run a fundraising drive across Australia. When they realised the paperwork involved, they decided to limit it to just the state in which they were based. In another case, a charity spent more than 50 hours trying to comply with the laws. Finally, they gave up and restricted their fundraising drive to two states—raising less money as a result.
One clear way forward, recommended by Justice Connect’s #FixFundraising campaign, would be to use the Australian Consumer Law as the vehicle for regulating fundraising. This would give all jurisdictions a seat at the table, and ensure that fundraising laws could not be arbitrarily changed by the federal government. Dozens of charities have signed up to support #FixFundraising, along with peak bodies such as the Australian Institute of Company Directors and Philanthropy Australia. Alas, in the chaos following the toppling of Prime Minister Turnbull, the Morrison Government cancelled the Consumer Affairs Forum, a meeting of Australian and New Zealand consumer affairs and fair trading ministers, which had been scheduled for 31 August. It isn’t clear when this meeting will reconvene, let alone whether fixing fundraising will even be on the agenda.
Over coming months, a Senate Committee, chaired by Senator Catryna Bilyk, will be holding hearings around Australia about the impact that outdated regulation has on charities and not-for-profits. It’s not a new issue. The first calls for reform were made over two decades ago. The role of the committee is to document the problems of the current system, and delve into the details of what a better system would look like.
Reducing the paperwork burden for charities should be a priority for governments of all political stripes. Alas, the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government has waged a war on charities for the past five years. They attempted to scrap the charities commission, then appointed a charity critic to head it. They reintroduced gag clauses into social service sector contracts, and tried to limit advocacy work of environmental and legal not-for-profits. Both Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull received open letters from the sector, expressing their dismay about the government’s anti-charity activity. In five years, the charity sector has had six different ministers.
Labor believes that charities and not-for-profits have a valuable role to play in our community. We are the first major party to create a frontbench portfolio serving charities and not-for-profits, and we have engaged extensively with the sector to shape a platform that will make life easier for the more than 50,000 charities and not-for-profits that together engage millions of volunteers and create billions of dollars of value to the community.
We know the non-government sector won’t always agree with Labor, but we’re mature enough to recognise that this is an essential part of a vibrant democracy. Wise politicians recognise that the role of charities and not-for-profits is not to be a cheer squad for the government of the day, but instead to stand up for their members and the causes they hold dear.
Catryna Bilyk is the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Charity Fundraising in the 21st Century. Andrew Leigh is the Shadow Minister for Charities and Not-For-Profits. This Opinion Piece was first published by the Herald Sun on Monday, 17 September 2018.
Authorised by Noah Carroll, ALP, Canberra.