What Will Come After the ACNC?

I spoke in parliament about the fact that the government has not yet told us what would replace the charities commission if it were abolished.
Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission, 24 March 2014

Last week, the government announced that there would be a bonfire of legislation. What was in this great vanity of a bonfire? There were three things. There was the repeal of what Fred Hilmer, the father of competition policy, called ‘ghost acts’. These are acts such as the act to repeal another act which could themselves be safely repealed because they were not troubling anyone. Then there was the repeal of protections for consumers of financial advice, which, thankfully, has been placed on pause. As the members for McMahon and Oxley have pointed out today, the coalition's FoFA changes achieved the unique configuration of being opposed not only by consumers groups but also by the Financial Planning Association themselves. The third piece of the bonfire was the repeal of the charities commission.

As so many members of this House have pointed out—Jenny Macklin, the member for Jagajaga, and Senator Ursula Stephens being chief among them—the charities commission was put in place in order to reduce the regulatory burden on charities and to protect charitable donors to make sure that they had an agency to which they could lodge complaints if they were victims of scams. The charities commission has been supported by four out of five charities. In an open letter, charities—including Save the Children, St John Ambulance Australia, Volunteering Australia, Lifeline, the RSPCA, ACOSS, the Sidney Myer Fund, the Hillsong Church, Social Ventures Australia, the YMCA and the Queensland Theatre Company—have called for the ACNC to be retained. Instead, we have a bill from Minister Andrews which repeals the charities commission without saying what will come in its place. This is a bill which reads more like a media alert than a serious piece of legislation. It contains clauses such as:

'The successor Agency is the Agency specified in a determination under subitem (2).'

In fact, it is entirely unclear to the sector what the government intends should replace the charities commission. Perhaps that is why the government has put the debate off rather than having it occur this week as originally scheduled. If the Minister for Social Services will not trust the public with his plans, why should parliament entrust the minister with the power to do as he wishes?

The bill will not take effect until the passing of a subsequent bill which will outline what on earth the government wants to do in the area of charity regulation. For a government which says that is serious about reducing red tape it is striking to read in the explanatory memorandum:

'Since stage one does not detail the alternative arrangements, there are no direct impacts that can be quantified as costs and benefits faced by the civil sector. As a result, no indicative costings are provided in this RIS.'

So, this is the very definition of a ghost bill. If this bill were on the statute books today it would have been repealed in the bonfire of legislation, because it does nothing.

The problem is that the charities commission does something. The charities commission is strongly supported by the sector. Many charities say how much they appreciate an agency that understands their complexities and helps them to focus on what they do best—helping people. It protects donors and acts as a watchdog against scammers and dodgy charities. Indeed, in a few weeks time the ACNC will host an international charities law regulators forum, celebrating what Australia has achieved. The government claims that the ACNC is a failed model, but countries such as Ireland are looking at putting into place a model like the Australian charities commission, which enjoys broad support from the community.

By contrast, the government's plan to put charities law regulation back into the hands of the Australian Taxation Office received support from just six per cent of the charitable sector—that is how persuasive this government has been with the sector. I call on Minister Andrews to not put the ACNC on the bonfire. Do with the plans to scrap the charities commission what the government has done with its ill-thought-through financial advice legislation—press the pause button, help the charities sector and, if you must repeal ghost acts, make that your bonfire instead.

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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.