ABC BRISBANE DRIVE WITH JOHN TAYLOR
THURSDAY, 28 SEPTEMBER 2023
SUBJECTS: Strengthening charities; Building community.
JOHN TAYLOR (HOST): Consultations have opened on federal legislation to improve the integrity of the charity sector. Draft legislation has been released and it revolves around the ability of the regulator to disclose whether it's investigating alleged misconduct by a charity. Bear in mind, there are about 60,000 registered charities in Australia. Federal MP Andrew Leigh is the Assistant Minister for Charities and joins us now. I suppose, Mr Leigh, why are you doing this?
ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT CHARITIES, COMPETITION, AND TREASURY ANDREW LEIGH: Well, John, the problem that the charities commission has had in the past is that you'll have a scandal on some Sunday night TV show and on Monday morning, people are asking the question, what's the regulator doing about it? And under their current secrecy provisions, the charities commission isn't allowed to say; "we're on the job, we're looking into it".
So we're changing the rules so that in instances where it's clearly in the public interest, the charities commission is able to say we're investigating. And in certain circumstances, they're able to say that an investigation has been concluded that'll bring the charities commission into line with other similar agencies in Australia and other similar counterparts overseas.
TAYLOR: So, it sounds like it's pretty much a done deal, then. Why are you even bothering having a consultation?
LEIGH: We always consult. We want to engage with the community, with the charity sector, and make sure we get it absolutely right. This is disclosing information about an ongoing investigation, so clearly you'd only do it in exceptional circumstances.
But it's those 60,000 charities, John, that have the strongest interest in making sure that we have a strong charities commission looking after wrongdoing. Nobody gets more troubled by charitable wrongdoing than the great people running the many terrific charities around the country.
TAYLOR: Are the charities, though, are they going to be the largest source of opposition to this change, though? I mean, you've just pumped their tires.
LEIGH: No, they're up for it, they're enthusiastic about it. They understand that if you have a sense that the charities commission isn't looking at wrongdoing, then that could hurt the entire sector. That could erode people's willingness to donate.
A while back, the UK had a scandal where an elderly woman took her own life, in part because she was being hounded by charitable fundraisers. That didn't just hurt the charities that were hounding her, it hurt the entire sector. And you saw a drop off in donations for a period. We don't want to see an Olive Cooke style scandal in Australia. We want to make sure that we've got a good regulator that's able to speak out publicly when necessary to maintain the right balance between integrity and transparency.
TAYLOR: I mean, the numbers, when you look at charities in Australia, are enormous, aren't they? We're talking many billions of dollars goes through charities.
LEIGH: The charity and not-for-profit sector is nearly a tenth of the economy, more than a tenth of employment, nearly some three million volunteers. It's a big and important sector. We're keen to ensure that the sector grows and thrives, because over the last generation, there's been a decline in community engagement in Australia.
Fewer of us are playing organised sport, fewer of us are volunteering, fewer of us are giving to charities, fewer of us have as many friends and know as many of our neighbours as we did in the past. We've become more disconnected. And one of the Government's goals, and my goal as the Assistant Minister for Charities is to try to rebuild that sense of community.
TAYLOR: And part of that then is increasing the transparency around where your dollar goes when you give it to a charity.
LEIGH: That's right. We need to make sure we've got a great charities commission. In appointing Sue Woodward as head of the charities commission last year, we got somebody who'd spent her entire career working with the charity sector.
We've now got a charity sector advisory board that’s been reappointed. There are terrific, diverse, broad range of people working with charities and not-for-profits around the country. And I've been holding a series of charity forums online and in every state and territory capital in order to hear directly from charities about how they think we can work together to build a more connected Australia.
TAYLOR: Is this the start, then, of more transparency changes that are going to come to this sector?
LEIGH: We'd like to make sure that there's as much information out there as possible. Obviously, the charities commission does what it does on a limited budget, but to the extent we can get more information out there and foster a greater research community more information, I think that's a good thing.
I'm a big fan of the Effective Altruism movement, sites like Givewell.org, which have rigorously looked at charities and tried to provide donors with a really careful sense as to which charity will do the most good with their donations. I spoke to the Effective Altruism Australia Conference in Melbourne last Friday and they're engaged in thinking about how we can make sure that we don't just increase the quantity of philanthropy, but also the quality.
TAYLOR: Are you happy that the Australian charities are, by and large, operating ethically and appropriately?
LEIGH: Absolutely. I think it's a sector that's to be commended. Every time I go into one of these charity town halls, I'm just struck by the passion, the goodwill, the enthusiasm and the community connectedness. These are busy people. They live by the maxim that if you want something done, ask a busy person. Invariably, they'll be involved in half a dozen different community organisations.
I'd say to any of your listeners who are thinking about getting involved that you've got to remember the thing called the ‘helper’s high’. Helping others out doesn't just help the recipient, it also helps the giver. So, it's a great chance to go online, look at your favourite charity, see whether you could make a donation to them if you've got some spare cash. Or go to Volunteering Queensland and look at finding some opportunities to volunteer. We need more Australians engaged in the community. It's not just worthy. It's a lot of fun, too.
TAYLOR: To be registered as a charity, an organisation must be not for profit, have only charitable purposes for the public benefit and not be an individual, a political party or a government entity and not be sort of disqualified. Do you concede, though, in some instances, some people set up charities as a way for personal enrichment?
LEIGH: There's certainly been those instances and we need to crack down on those, not just because they're hurting their donors, but because of the ripple effects through the sector and the problems that they cause. The charities commission has resources carefully targeted at these investigations.
People can report a dodgy charity to the charities commission, but again, I'd emphasise that we're talking about a very small number of organisations here. The vast bulk of those working in the charitable sector could earn much more elsewhere. They're in it for love, not money.
TAYLOR: Is there any transparency, though, about what people in charities do earn in these roles? I mean, the law says that they can be paid for their work, even though it's not for profit, but they can't be paid an unreasonable amount. But how much transparency is there over what leaders and staff members within charities are being paid, or in some instances, paying themselves?
LEIGH: Yeah, look, there's been an ongoing conversation over this and I can certainly understand both perspectives. The argument for it is that you want to see maximum transparency. The argument against it is that we're trying to reduce the paperwork burden on charities because every form they have to fill out is another hour they're not spending looking after the most vulnerable.
So, we need to get the balance right on that, it may well be that for some of the largest charities, then that sort of reporting is appropriate. I'm not sure I'd want to be burdening every charity in Australia with those sort of requirements.
TAYLOR: But at the moment there's no plans for any change on that front?
LEIGH: Not at the moment. Our main plans are in terms of boosting the size of the charity sector, doubling philanthropy by 2030. We've got a Productivity Commission review underway, it'll hand down a draft report by the end of this year and then a final report next year. And that'll really be the blueprint that'll set out the case for how we can double philanthropy.
And then we're also working with a group of experts to try and encourage charities to grow, thinking about things like cyber capability, their ability to attract volunteers and the like.
TAYLOR: If people want to pass comment, then on this federal legislation to improve the integrity of the charity sector, how do they do it?
LEIGH: Just jump onto the Australian Treasury website, treasury.gov.au. I imagine most of your listeners already have that bookmarked as one of their favourites, but if they don't, then they can jump on, they'll find the consultation right there.
TAYLOR: Andrew Leigh, the Assistant Minister for Charities, and a very busy man. Thank you very much for speaking with us today.
LEIGH: Real pleasure, John.