2CC 1206 WITH LEON DELANEY
TUESDAY, 24 JANUARY 2023
SUBJECTS: Reforms to process for approving the tax-deductibility of charities; The role of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission; Investigation into Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints; Referendum to implement an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.
LEON DELANEY (HOST): Andrew Leigh, Federal Member for Fenner. Are you ever tempted to sit in Bob Hawke's chair?
ANDREW LEIGH, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR CHARITIES, COMPETITION AND TREASURY: Oh, yeah, and I love going to Old Parliament House. There's just that sense of history radiating out of the walls. You know, you stand on the steps, you think about that moment in 1975, when Gough Whitlam stood there after the dismissal. You walk into the chambers, you can just you can get that sense of Curtin and Chifley and Menzies standing at the despatch box. It's just a magical place. We're so lucky to have it in the capital.
DELANEY: Yeah, I'm a big fan of the Museum of Australian Democracy, although, sad to say, I haven't actually been there for a little while. But I do remember Bob Hawke's office as being quite impressive and I just imagined myself sitting in the big chair. But you know what? They wouldn't let me.
LEIGH: Well, you can wander into the chambers, you can sit on those lovely padded green seats, remind yourself that these were rooms designed for ample bottomed men. And the decor of the place does sort of it feels very much like a cigar club to me. So while it's beautiful, it's also a relic of that kind of much more masculine era.
DELANEY: Are you suggesting I must be an ample bottomed man if I'm going to feel at home in the Old Parliament House?
LEIGH: Never, Leon. We can all feel at home. We can also recognise that it's a museum piece at the same time. And you can see those photos when you look out the front, where there were certain moments where sheep would graze outside Old Parliament House and washing lines outside the Prime Minister's office and the like. It's from that time when Canberra was a city of less than 100,000 people.
DELANEY: Some would say it has a little more character than the new building.
LEIGH: Certainly people were closer, cheek and jowl alongside one another. So there was that sense that you didn't have the same private spaces, that you got a lot more bipartisanship because people were just naturally brushing up against one another. But speaking to people who've worked there, it was a hard place to get your job done when you had somebody else's elbow in your face all day.
DELANEY: Brushing up against each other. Apparently they still do that in the New Parliament House, too. But that's another story for another day. The reason we're speaking today is because you've called for meddling ministers to stay away from charities and let them get on with their charitable works. Now, this was inspired by some things that occurred last year and going back a little bit further than that, with a number of charitable organisations running into some difficulty receiving their tax deductible status. Now, this was under the previous government. There have been some changes, but you want to actually make sure that doesn't happen again?
LEIGH: That's right, Leon. What we saw under the Liberals was charities such as the Grace Tame Foundation and Climate for Change, doing their paperwork, being eligible for tax deductibility status, but not having that status approved because ministers in the Liberal Government just didn't like the cut of their jib. So you had this approach where ideology, rather than good policy was driving who got tax deductibility. We don't want to see that in the future. We want to make sure that the hardworking charities of Australia get their tax deductibility based not on the good graces of the minister, but on fair applications of laws that apply to everyone.
DELANEY: Now, the situation is that some charities are subject to this ministerial veto, but not all charities. Why is that?
LEIGH: Yeah, that's right. There's these four categories of charities which require ministerial sign off, and they were the categories which the Liberals were holding back. There was no sense in holding back the Grace Tame Foundation. They'd done their paperwork and as soon as we came to office, we approved their tax deductibility status. Likewise with Veterinarians for Climate Action, with the Climate and Environment Foundation, with the Whitsunday Conservation Council, all charities that had done their paperwork back in 2020, but still, by the time the 2022 election rolled around hadn't received tax deductibility. We've gone ahead and approved those organisations and now we're looking at this systematic change.
DELANEY: Okay, so what is the procedure for charities and organisations that are not subject to that ministerial veto? Who is in charge? Who is the supervisory body?
LEIGH: Well, if you're not subject to these four categories, then it's a more straightforward procedure. It's got to do with fitting yourself into the particular category. And then the Tax Office and the Charities Commission have a role in ensuring that they sign off on your tax deductibility. That's a straightforward process. It's done at arm's length in the government of the day. That's as it should be.
DELANEY: So basically, the ATO is in charge?
LEIGH: It's a matter of following a set of defined rules rather than begging and scraping before the Minister for them to use their good graces to approve you. I don't believe that we need to have a situation in which a minister can hold back the Grace Tame Foundation simply because Grace Tame doesn't smile in a photo at the Lodge.
DELANEY: Well, that may or may not have had something to do with that, I don't know, I couldn't possibly say. But just to be clear, what you're proposing now is to change the arrangements so that all charities will be effectively treated in the same way they'll be held to account by the Charities Commission and by the Australian Tax Office, not by individual ministers.
LEIGH: Look, that's largely what we're moving to. One of these categories is overseas aid charities. There's a little bit of extra work that needs to be done there, making sure that everyone's complying with the money laundering laws. But by and large, what we want to do is make sure that government is imposing as little regulation on charities as is necessary. We don't want to be a burden on charities. We're a government that's ended the war on charities and now wants to work cooperatively with the great charity sector to have a more connected Australia.
DELANEY: Okay. Of course, one of the real difficulties sometimes is determining what is and is not a charity, because somebody might go about setting up an organisation, call it a charity, but really they're using it for hiding profits or for skimming the top or whatever the case might be. How do you stop that from happening?
LEIGH: We've got the Charities Commission looking into this very carefully, and one of the important issues for the Charities Commission is to make sure that all of the charities, not-for-profits in Australia, are doing the right thing, because the whole sector can be dragged down by a number of organisations that are not playing by the rules. That then, erodes support for the charity sector has people less likely to give and at a time Leon, which we've seen declining volunteering, declining share of people giving, declining share of Australians participating in the community, the last thing we need is any scandals hurting the sector. Sue Woodward, as head of the Charities Commission, is on the job with that. We appointed her at the end of last year as somebody who is broadly respected across the charity sector and who I think will do a great job in running the charities regulator.
DELANEY: So, on that basis, has any action been taken against the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter day Saints, who were exposed on television last year for setting up an organisation as a charitable organisation so that people could get tax deductions when they donated to the Church?
LEIGH: Well, it's important to be clear about the roles here. Just as politicians don't police the law, so we have the police services to do that, we have the Charities Commission playing the role of enforcer. So it's not my job as the Assistant Minister in charge of charities to be going after organisations. That's their job. They operate within a cone of silence and so they don't confirm or deny particular investigations, which is pretty similar to what the Tax Office does. So I understand it's frustrating not to be able to say for any particular organisation whether there's investigations on foot, but that's the way the system works. They're the enforcer. We put in place the laws that regulate all charities.
DELANEY: But if they had taken any action, you would know about it?
LEIGH: No, the rules around confidentiality extend also to the minister, so they're very much at arm's length from the minister when it comes to enforcement, and also they're under obligations not to make disclosures.
DELANEY: Okay. Now, the Prime Minister is in Alice Springs at this very moment addressing issues there which are obviously very disturbing. But this is against the backdrop of the Labor Government attempting to convince the Australian people to vote yes at a referendum later this year to put in place a Voice to Parliament that seems to be now being eroded by these other issues, which are very serious and urgent issues, need to be addressed quite obviously. But the latest opinion polls show that public support for a voice is starting to slip. Are you concerned that people just don't understand what the Government is trying to do?
LEIGH: There's a lot of detail out there and there will be more by the time people vote in the referendum. We do need to make sure that people are safe. Everyone deserves to live in a safe community. The Commonwealth is funding a $14 million community safety program in Alice Springs and the Prime Minister is there, reflecting the Federal Government's desire to work cooperatively with the Northern Territory Government to improve community safety in Alice Springs. But I think apart from that, your listeners understand that Indigenous Australians have been left out of our founding document, left out of the Constitution, and that a Voice to Parliament is righting a historic wrong, recognising that Indigenous Australians need to be listened to when it comes to laws that are affecting them. It won't provide a veto, it's not a third chamber of Parliament, but it is an additional input into the policymaking process which I believe Australians will support at the referendum.
DELANEY: But when it comes time to vote at the referendum, it's being suggested that people don't really know what it is they're voting for.
LEIGH: It's a straightforward proposition. Do you support an Indigenous Voice to Parliament? And you've got to say, Leon, in 1967, the referendum that got 91 per cent support, more than any other referendum, again there. It was a straightforward proposition. Should the Commonwealth have powers to make laws for people of any race? We didn't go into the specifics of what the Commonwealth might legislate on. It was a broad proposition. So too, is the Indigenous voice to Parliament a broad proposition that there be a body that will provide advice to the Parliament on issues affecting Indigenous Australians.
DELANEY: So what we're actually voting on does not specify what structure or makeup that body will have?
LEIGH: Well, all of those details will be sorted out. People will have more detail when they vote. But the nature of referendums is that you're not voting on the sort of specificity of a bill that comes before Parliament. It is a broad proposition, just as the 1967 referendum was a broad proposition.
DELANEY: Andrew, thanks very much for your time today.
LEIGH: Thanks so much, Leon. Great to talk.
DELANEY: Thank you. Andrew Leigh, the Federal Member for Fenner, and, of course, also the Assistant Minister for Competition.