ABC CANBERRA MORNINGS
MONDAY, 6 JUNE 2022
SUBJECTS: The resignation of Gary Johns; Labor’s plans to support the charities sector; Canberrans and donations; ACCC.
ADAM SHIRLEY, HOST: Gary Johns - head of the Australian Charities and Not for Profits Commission - will step down at the end of next month. Now his stewardship caused some consternation and open criticism from the then opposition, now federal government. Andrew Leigh is the federal Member for Fenner and newly appointed Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury. Dr Andrew Leigh, good morning to you and thank you for your time.
ANDREW LEIGH, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR COMPETITION, CHARITIES AND TREASURY: Morning, Adam. Great to be with you.
SHIRLEY: You've had some days to get, well a few days to get your knees under the desks of these new portfolios. First of all to Dr Gary Jones, you were quite critical of some of his decisions and he in that role in the months prior. Did you ask for his resignation?
LEIGH: I haven't had any contact with Gary Johns, but I certainly welcome his resignation. He is somebody who had made his name as a charities critic and raised many concerns in the sector through the way in which he'd run the charities commission. Adam, charities have suffered a nine year war being waged on them by the Liberals. There's been three open letters to successive Liberal prime ministers from the charity sector, asking them to back off on their attacks. Charities even wrote to the United Nations calling for their help in attacks on charitable advocacy. And so charities are really looking for a government that will work in partnership with them in rebuilding community after the COVID pandemic. They've got that in the Albanese Government. We're really looking to reset the relationship with charities and we'll be embarking on an open transparent search for a new head for the charities commission in the coming months.
SHIRLEY: And you'll be a key part of at least overseeing that search. What will it involve to get what you think should be the right person in that very important role?
LEIGH: We need somebody who's appropriately respected in the sector. Somebody who can do the important work of regulating charities, but also somebody who deeply understands the values that charities bring to our community. And that was illustrated during the COVID pandemic, when many Australians turn to those mutual aid groups, to charities to help with providing support in very difficult times. We've got a social capital crisis in the country at the moment, Adam. We've seen a decline over recent generations in the share of Australians who are joining, volunteering or giving. Australians have fewer friends today than we did a generation ago. We're less likely to be engaged in team sports, less likely to be part of a church or a trade union. And so rebuilding community is a critical issue for me, and I think charities need to be a vital part of that.
SHIRLEY: So do you have direct thoughts on what you as Assistant Minister can do? I mean, legislation wise, engaging with the sector more directly - what sort of things do you want to put in place and actually will act on?
LEIGH: We took a couple of specific proposals to the election. One was to fix fundraising. Right now, there's a hodgepodge of state and territory laws which wastes more than a million dollars a month of charities time as they look to raise money, and we need to fix that-
SHIRLEY: Do you mean in terms of applying for charity status, maintaining it, other administration that they have to do?
LEIGH: Sorry - I should have been more specific. If you want to raise money online, at the moment it's a state and territory matter. That made sense in the days in which people knocked on doors to raise money. But now people are raising money on websites. You can't be sure if you're an ACT charity whether someone will donate from Queensland, so you've got to comply with the Queensland charities law. And once you've done all the paperwork for the seven different jurisdictions that require it, typically you've wasted a week of a staff member’s time. Added up across all charities, that amounts to a million dollar impost every month. So we need to fix that. We've also set a target to double philanthropy by 2030, working with Philanthropy Australia and other major donors in looking at ways in which we can build a culture of giving in Australia. We've said we'll work more collaboratively with charities through ensuring that they boost their productivity. I mean, this is a huge sector: about a tenth of employment, 3 million volunteers. So if we can boost the productivity of charities, that'll be a huge boon for Australia. We're getting Treasury straight to work on that.
SHIRLEY: On a local level, Dr Leigh, the Australian Red Cross has found the postcode 2602 – obviously in the ACT - is the second most generous postcode when it comes to giving to charity. Do you have views or evidence on why that is?
LEIGH: Yes - I wrote a book called ‘Disconnected’ a couple of years back, which looks at donations, volunteering and giving - broadly ‘social capital’ - across Australian states and territories. It turned out the ACT came out top not just on generosity, but also on volunteering, joining. In the Clean Up Australia Day surveys we came out on top. So I think part of that is our culture that we've built here, the way in which suburbs are designed I think allows us to rub shoulders with one another more readily and there's a good outdoor sporting culture. A little bit of it is higher levels of income and education, but that doesn't entirely account for why the ACT is so civic minded. So I do think that there's lessons in the way in which Canberra rolls that can help inspire the rest of Australia. And you must be pretty happy right now to be broadcasting from the second most generous postcode in the nation.
SHIRLEY: It is a nice thing to know that per capita we’re a fairly generous lot. Adam Shirley with you on ABC Radio Canberra, as is Dr Andrew Leigh, federal Member for Fenner and the newish Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury. Has been in the role for a handful of days since the full ministry was announced. Jane has asked, and this comes up a bit when we talk charities and giving Andrew Leigh, can you put some regulations around so called charity groups that harass people at lights or in shopping centres? That's been a part of the furniture, if I could put it that way, for some years but does the new government have thoughts on regulation around that sort of thing?
LEIGH: Yes, I think the so called ‘chuggers’ - charity muggers - can give charities a bad name and it's really important that those workers are looked after and also that charities don't harass people. In Britain, there was a scandal around Olive Cooke, an older woman who part of her death seemed to be related to the way in which she was being hounded by charities, and that caused a big rethink in the sector. I don't want Australian charities to have to go through that. I think it's really important that they set high standards in their fundraising and recognise that harassing people simply isn't on. The vast majority of charities though are out there doing terrific work. They're working on a smell of an oily rag. They've been harassed by a government that wanted them out of the public conversation, and I think they're very much welcoming a change of government and change of approach. I don't think any Charities Minister before me has ever wanted the portfolio as much as I do, has ever been as passionate about the charity and community sector, and is ambitious about what we can do to rebuild community working with charities.
SHIRLEY: I know there'll be an independent process, but Dr Leigh, Jen has texted to say ‘may I suggest Tim Costello for the role of charities commissioner’. Is that the sort of calibre of person that you would approve of?
LEIGH: There will be an open and transparent process. And certainly, we will maintain that as we would for other government appointments. I think you've seen under the Liberals very much a culture of handpicked mates. When Gary Johns was put in place, they decided to announce the appointment in the hours following the successful same sex marriage vote passing, because they simply didn't want public scrutiny on it. You can rest assured that we will make an appointment that will make the sector proud.
SHIRLEY: Dr Leigh, you have a couple of portfolio responsibilities as we mentioned. Amongst them is competition. So does that mean you will be responsible for or the minister overseeing the ACCC and ASIC?
LEIGH: I'll be working with Jim Chalmers on the ACCC. Stephen Jones will have charge of ASIC as Minister for Financial Services. I do think there's great opportunity there to help the most vulnerable by ensuring that our competition laws are working in the interest of all. We've seen a rise in mergers and the fall of the start up rate. There are great opportunities for us to create a more dynamic and competitive economy. We saw the last surge in productivity in the 1990s being fuelled in part by those competition reforms. The lacklustre productivity figures we've seen in Australia I think might partly be a reflection Adam of a less competitive business environment.
SHIRLEY: A relatively new chair, Gina Cass-Gottlieb, who heads up the ACCC now. Have you already met with her? What is your response to the way she might oversee the ACCC?
LEIGH: I'm looking forward to engaging with Gina over the course of this week. Certainly the ACCC's an essential institution in Australian public life. It's done vital work in holding firms to account and really standing up for small business that's taken on bigger firms, but also for us as consumers. If we have only a couple of firms to choose from, then chances are that prices will be higher and choice will be lower. And lack of competition can be bad for workers too. If you've only got a couple of firms to choose from, then you might not earn the same wages. So this cost of living crisis we've got, Adam, I think can in part be dealt with by ensuring that we've got strongly competitive markets and Gina Cass-Gottlieb and her team are very much a part of that.
SHIRLEY: Dr Leigh, plenty to do it sounds like you've got in mind already. Thank you for your time.
LEIGH: Pleasure, Adam. Thank you.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.