ABC CANBERRA DRIVE
MONDAY, 20 JUNE 2022
SUBJECT: Labor’s plans to support the charities sector.
ADRIENNE FRANCIS, HOST: Andrew Leigh is Assistant Minister for Charities, and also Member for the Federal ACT seat of Fenner, and he joins us on ABC Radio Canberra. Yuma. Good evening, Andrew Leigh. Thanks for being with us.
ANDREW LEIGH, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR COMPETITION, CHARITIES AND TREASURY: Good afternoon, Adrienne. Great to be back with you.
FRANCIS: Why did you fight to get this charities portfolio?
LEIGH: Oh look, I love charities and the work they do in the community. And I thought it was just beautiful the way you talked about Margaret and Paul McGrath, and what they do with Ngunnawal Street Pantries really is remarkable. I remember when I was out there, they were telling me the story of a time when people had been lined up to receive support and someone had mentioned that she had been the victim of family violence. Somebody else in the queue just quietly said, ‘I went through the same experience a couple of years ago, if you'd like somebody to come with you to the support counselling services I can’. And they said that was what was really special about it - they weren't just providing food and clothes and essential living provisions, but they're also connecting people up into a broader community. I've had the charities portfolio since Labor went into opposition in 2013 and spent those nine years engaging with charities - even wrote a book about some of their ideas for building community - and really had a chance to get a sense as to the problems that were being caused by the coalition's adversarial approach to charities.
FRANCIS: And so what are you going to be doing differently, to ensure that they don't feel like poor second cousins, to use the words of Margaret and Paul McGrath?
LEIGH: We need to end the war on charities. Charities have had nine years in which their advocacy attempts have been attacked. They've written three successive letters to Liberal Prime Ministers, complaining about attacks on their sector. They even appealed to the United Nations in the face of attacks on charitable advocacy. So we've announced that under an Albanese Government, the war on charities ends. We won't be enforcing those gag clauses, and we won't be putting them in social services agreements. In simple terms, that means that just because a charity is receiving government handouts it's not precluded from participating in the democratic conversation – and if that involves criticising the government, so be it. We recognise that the public conversation is enriched when we have the wise voices of charities speaking out on behalf of the people that they help. We've set a target to double philanthropy by 2030. Not because we think government needs to do less, but because we think that we can get more resources into the charitable sector to help deal with the problems like homelessness, with environmental challenges, with community inclusion, which is so important to so many Australian charities.
FRANCIS: That is a really ambitious plan, doubling Australian philanthropy by 2030. Is it really achievable? How are you going to drive that lever?
LEIGH: It's great, isn't it? I do like an ambitious goal, and I think this one is achievable. First of all, we need to fix fundraising. At the moment there's a hodgepodge of State and Territory laws that mean that someone who has to fundraise online basically spends a week of staff member time doing the paperwork to register. We're going to simplify that, make it quicker for charities to fundraise online. We've also announced that as part of encouraging charities to advocate, we'll also be encouraging donors to give to causes that involve advocacy. I think that'll be attractive to many donors, because many donors want to make a difference to the public conversation, as well as helping individual recipients. We need a stronger culture of giving among our billionaires. I think the giving pledge done by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and signed onto by Andrew Forrest and some others is important for billionaires, but we also need to make sure that giving is a mass participation activity, that we're encouraging initiatives like Kids in Philanthropy. So we're building a culture of giving back to the community. As the father of three boys, I just know they're much nicer young men when they're helping others, whether that's through volunteering or joining or donating. So we need that broad civic culture.
FRANCIS: And if we get to some of those grassroots issues that we've heard about through Ngunnawal Street Pantry and others, it's the cost of compliance with current regulations as well. You've said that you’ll crack down on unnecessary paperwork – why, and also how?
LEIGH: We need to make sure that the charities commission is operating in a way that streamlines the work of charities. Of course, charities doing the wrong thing shouldn't be allowed to continue. But charities need to know that in the charities commission, they're not facing a foe. Frankly, if ASIC - the body that regulates companies - had been as anti-business as the charities commission has been anti-charities, there'd be an outcry in the business sector. So we do need to make sure we get the balance right, and that the charities regulator is effectively doing its job while ensuring we can build community.
FRANCIS: Have you found a new commissioner then, for the charities commission?
LEIGH: The current commissioner - who made his name as a charities critic and who I've been publicly critical of - has announced that he's stepping down at the end of July. The important thing for me, Adrienne, is not to handpick a replacement but to have a process that people can trust in. I know the charity sector. I'm confident that if we have an open and transparent process, at arm's length from government, that that will produce a good successor - somebody who can be as respected as Susan Pascoe, the first head of the charities commission. So I'll put that process in place, and we'll be calling for nominations for the head of the charities commission soon.
FRANCIS: And just finally, we spoke a little bit about advocacy earlier. But of course, Labor supported a bill in December last year which made it more difficult for charities to be involved in political advocacy. So are you planning on overturning the legislation that you supported six months ago?
LEIGH: That was a challenging situation. Had we done nothing, we would have seen a massive change in the number of organisations who were required to report like political parties. Labor worked to amend that law, so we could get a better outcome, so it didn't include as many charities in the net. We've said we'll review those thresholds. But certainly, I think we took the right approach. Other political parties, such as the Greens, said they just thought they should have tried to block the whole thing. That would have left charities in a much worse place if Labor had taken that approach. From opposition, there's only so much you can do. From government, I'm really confident we can work actively with Australian charities and work to build a more connected Australia where rates of volunteering, joining, giving are higher, and indeed where we turn around some of these declines in community-
FRANCIS: Andrew Leigh, I'm afraid we're going to have to go because the news waits for no one-
LEIGH: Absolutely. Thank you.
FRANCIS: Thank you for your time. Andrew Leigh, Assistant Charities Minister.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.