Donors & Charities Say: Keep the ACNC

I led off today in the Matter of Public Importance debate, speaking about the value of keeping the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission.
Matter of Public Importance - Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission, 20 March 2014

Yesterday, in this House, the Leader of the House said as follows:

‘There will be a single national database for university reporting, so government departments will coordinate with each other rather than putting that burden of coordination on the university sector.’

A single national database to allow coordination. But remove the word 'university' and insert the word 'charity 'and you have exactly what the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission does.

It is a one-stop shop. This is a government that approves of one-stop shops when it comes to environmental approvals but when it comes to a one-stop shop for charities they are suddenly against it. When it comes to one-stop shops this government is all over the shop. The charities commission is a body that could not enjoy wider support from across the charity sector. A wide range of charities, more than 40, have signed an open letter to save the charity commission. They include: Save the Children, St John Ambulance Australia, the Ted Noffs Foundation, RSPCA, The Sidney Myer Fund & the Myer Foundation, Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, Volunteering Australia, Lifeline, ACOSS, SANE Australia, Musica Viva Australia, Hillsong Church, Social Ventures Australia, Australian Conservation Foundation, the YMCA, the Wesley Mission and the Queensland Theatre Company. What else could bring all of these organisations together from across the political spectrum but the Abbott government?

The Abbott government said it would bring Australians together—and it has. They are united in opposition to what this government is doing. This government wants to get rid of a charities commission, about which Tim Costello said:

‘The commission is actually working for us, and it gives the public confidence. It underpins the consumer benefit to charities.’

Myles McGregor Lowndes, of the Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies said:

‘During its short history, the ACNC has played a positive role in the overall regulatory environment of charities.’

Indeed, he describes:

‘Its stellar improvement in terms of timeliness, consistency of decision making and responsiveness…’

Carolyn Kitto of Stop the Traffik said:

‘The ACNC is a dream come true for small charities…The ACNC has cut red tape dramatically. The staff are helpful and navigate complexities so we can be sure we are compliant and efficient.’

David Crosbie, CEO of the Community Council of Australia said:

‘The ACNC is more efficient than the government regulators it replaced, is doing good work and deserves a chance to achieve its three goals of reducing red tape, increasing public trust and strengthening the charity sector.’

Louise Walsh from Philanthropy Australia says:

‘Since the ACNC’s establishment as an independent charities regulator, Philanthropy Australia has consistently supported the ACNC’s important role in our community.’

We also heard strong support yesterday from Anglicare Australia, which said:

‘The repeal of the ACNC will simply recreate more bureaucracy, lessen protection for the public and add unnecessarily to the workload of community service providers. It will also create uncertainty as there is no clear replacement. Uncertainty is the biggest enemy of efficiency, as big business tells us.’

The matter of public importance before the House goes in particular to the impact on Western Australia. Professor David Gilchrist, the Director of the Not-for-profit Initiative at Western Australia's Curtin University, spoke to my office today and said:

‘A silent majority in Western Australia think the ACNC is the way forward. Regulation is only part of what it offers.

‘Its best practice governance principles have been very well accepted. It has provided the sector with a good set of financial principles that allow for differences between charities. It recognises that the WA sector is every bit as complex as any other sector.

‘Removing the ACNC without a fair trial and without leveraging the hard work of the commission in recent months would be a mistake.’

That is what David Gilchrist of the Not-for-profit Initiative at Curtin University said.

A pro bono survey in August 2013 of 1,500 charities found that 81 per cent supported the ACNC. What share supported the government's preferred solution of returning charities regulation to the ATO? Just six per cent. The National Party gets more votes than that! There is more support for the Australian Greens and the National Party than there is for this government's approach of returning charitable regulation to the Australian Taxation Office.

This is a serious sector. The not-for-profit sector employs one million Australians, turns over $100 billion and involves five million volunteers. It is at the heart of our community and many of us in this place take pride in the work of the not-for-profit sector. But if we want a strong not-for-profit sector we have to listen to what expert reviews have said. No less than five reviews, including the Productivity Commission review and the Henry tax review, have said we need a national charities commission. That is because without a charities commission there is a hodgepodge of regulation which puts donors at risk and does not allow charities their own bespoke regulator.

This government is driven not by expert advice, not by listening to five inquiries and not by listening to the four in five charities that want to keep the ACNC; instead, it is driven by blind ideology. There is no better evidence of that than the attempt by the minister in charge of abolishing the charities commission to hang onto a 400-year-old common-law definition of charities rather than a new statutory definition. John Howard back in 2000 said that this statutory definition would be a good idea. Mr Howard said:

‘Yet the common law definition of a charity, which is based on a legal concept dating back to 1601, has resulted in a number of legal definitions and often gives rise to legal disputes.’

This government is a pre-Howard era government in its approach to charities. It wants to take us back to 1601. In fact, not only it is pre-Howard but it is pre-Protestant, pre-Enlightenment, pre-electric lights and pre-steam engines. When it comes to charities, this government would take us back to the time of leeches and witch burning. That is its view of charities. Its view of charities is that they should be seen and not heard. It wants the Australian charity sector to be simply a service delivery arm of government. That is why the Minister for Social Services is taking carriage of this and not the Assistant Treasurer—that was at the time when we had an Assistant Treasurer!

Labor's view is that charities play an important role in the Australian community sector and they should be free to speak their minds. Brave charities have spoken their minds. You have to be a pretty bold charity to put your head above the parapet with this government, knowing their willingness to play favourites and to have a go at charities that are of a mind to speak in the public interest rather than simply look at where their next dollar is coming from. We have seen charities, from ACOSS to the age sector, saying that this is a bad idea and that, if this change goes through, it will be utterly retrograde. Charitable donors will be at risk. They will be placed at risk from scam artists. If you are opening your door to a charity, you want to know that there is a charities commission standing ready to take complaints against the thankfully small number of dodgy charities. If we do not have that then we are not going to have the backstop that the sector requires. This approach would be like the coalition saying to financial investors: 'Let's get rid of ASIC. We'll be okay without the Securities and Investments Commission. Let's just let the market rip.'

Mr Bowen interjecting—

Dr LEIGH:  The shadow Treasurer said perhaps I should not suggest that. You never know what this government will do. This is, after all, a government that is going further in the area of removing protections on consumers than the Financial Planning Association would want. This government should listen to donors, should listen to charities, should listen to philanthropists and should keep the ACNC.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.