Government needs to help the helpers - Transcript, ABC News Radio





SUBJECTS: The impact of coronavirus on charities, stimulus packages.

GLEN BARTHOLOMEW, HOST: We have Andrew Leigh back on the line for us now. Andrew, good afternoon, and as I saying a pretty welcome move to extend this aid to the charity sector.

ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: It was, Glen, although it's still the major charities that are being left out, and that means that around half the workers in the sector won't be covered because they work for some of the big charities who are being asked to do the heavy lifting. So as we're seeing these lines outside Centrelink offices across the country, people being turned away - one woman said she was turned away with $10 in a bank account - who will she turn to? She’ll turn to a charity, and likely the charity she'll turn to is one that hasn't been supported by the government.

BARTHOLOMEW: What were the criteria to determine who was supported and who wasn't?

LEIGH: Well, it’s those with turnover under $50 million. But that excludes groups like the Red Cross, Fred Hollows Foundation, RSPCA, Save the Children, Mission Australia, Smith Family, Goodstart Early Learning - some of the significant charities that have been doing work, supporting people recovering from the bushfires, but are now seeing a big drop off in donations. They're seeing challenges for their volunteer base because of social distancing, and they're seeing challenges in fundraising for when activities like fundraising balls are cancelled. Philanthropic foundations are giving less because of the sharemarket collapse. 

So charities are really being hard squeezed, but yet they're the organisations that we're turning to now to ask to look after people in the community. Northside Community Service in my electorate supports a range of elderly and vulnerable people, including one woman undergoing chemotherapy. Her immune system is compromised. The charity is there to look after her, and these charities right across the country are being asked to do the heavy lifting for dealing with this coronavirus crisis.

BARTHOLOMEW: They’re also are a pretty large employer in Australia. Why did the people who did get supported make the cut outside of that turnover? Was it seen as being that because they are large employers or what?

LEIGH: You’d have to ask the government as to why they made the arbitrary cut they did. But you’re totally right, Glen, to say that charities are a big employer. 800,000 full time equivalent workers. Indirect employment of another 500,000. They engage over three million volunteers. The charity sector is bigger than the retail sector, and many charities are asking for a little bit of flexibility in how they're funded. So for example, if you're a not-for-profit funded on a fee-for-service basis for organising a workshop or a festival or a meeting with clients, then the social distancing rules mean you can't fulfill that part of your contract. So charities are asking for a little bit more flexibility from the federal government in how they're dealt with. Charities are absolutely vital in how we respond to the challenge of coronavirus. We have to be helping the helpers.

BARTHOLOMEW: I wondered about the impact on their operations right now as well, and whether they'll be in a position to cope with such demand.

LEIGH: They'll being squeezed on the income side at the same time that they're being asked to do more on the support side. They’re a sector which has extraordinary high levels of trust, but haven't been welcomed in by the federal government to the national policy discussions. Tim Costello and David Crosbie from the Community Council for Australia say that their voice and experience isn't at the table of the major policy discussions, and they say it's critical to have the voice of charities there as we're looking to hold society together. This is immediately a physical health challenge, Glen, but it will soon become a mental health challenge and we need organisations across the country able to step in and look after the fabric of communities so it doesn't fray at this difficult time.

BARTHOLOMEW: The poor are said to be the biggest losers in every recession, so they might need more help than anyone of course. There are warnings in the United States that this event could become a bit of an extinction level event for America's non-profit community, many forced to close their doors. Do you share that concern?

LEIGH: I'm terrified by that concern, Glen. I'm really worried that this could mean for medium-sized charities that they're simply not able to pay the bills and not able to support their staff. We saw in the Global Financial Crisis massive hits to construction and manufacturing. That's why it was called the ‘man-cession’ – it was men that tended to lose their jobs. In this crisis, the jobs that are being hit are the in-person occupations dominated by women - as the charity sector is - so you could see a huge impact on female employment as a result of this. The government needs to step up quickly and needs to recognize that charities have as vital a role to play in the community as business, even more so perhaps. We're asking for their support when there's a demand for ventilators, hospital beds, support for people self-isolating at home, counselling services - all of these things are done by charities. We have to be looking after the charitable sector right now.

BARTHOLOMEW: The US Fed rolled out a new array of programs aimed at blunting the severe disruptions to the economy. They're taking a so-called bazooka approach. What's your view of our economic approach here? Are there lessons for us from overseas?

LEIGH: So I think the challenge is always to think about how much you're going to have to do in the coming weeks and do it now. Acting speedily is of the essence in a crisis like this because money does take some time to get out the door. Our package is around 3 per cent of GDP in fiscal terms. That's still smaller than New Zealand's or Sweden's, for example. So we do need to think about whether the government response is appropriate to the scale of what is being asked. We supported packages through Parliament last night - I was there till past eleven o'clock voting for the packages - but we're worried for example that the government is asking people to take $20,000 out of their superannuation accounts, which could cost them $50,000 or more in retirement savings. So we don't think that all of the measures were appropriately targeted.

BARTHOLOMEW: Andrew Leigh, thanks for joining us.

LEIGH: Thank you, Glen.

BARTHOLOMEW: Andrew Leigh, the deputy chair of the Standing Committee on Economics and Labor's spokesman on charities there.


Authorised by  Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.

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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.