5AA MORNINGS WITH LEON BYNER
WEDNESDAY, 24 NOVEMBER 2021
SUBJECT: The Morrison Government’s crackdown on charities.
LEON BYNER, HOST: The head of Barnardos, very famous charity, says that misguided legislation giving the regulator new powers to investigate and deregister charities will put vulnerable children in danger. Now, one political party - One Nation - has been accused of helping the Coalition to silence Australian charities after pledging support for a plan crackdown on the sector. Now I'm going to pick the brain of someone today who I think is one of the finest economic minds in the country. He's a former professor of economics at the Australian National University. He's been a Member of Parliament for a while. His name is Dr Andrew Leigh, and he is the federal Shadow Assistant Minister for Charities. Andrew, thanks for coming on today.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: Pleasure, Leon.
BYNER: Do we need to crack down?
LEIGH: Not at all. The chances of a charity being deregistered for illegal activity are about the chances of the typical Australian being convicted of murder this year: pretty low. The fact is that this is a solution in search of a problem. The government has been out there consistently trying to reduce the voices of charities in the public debate, because they don't like being criticised. And yet charities, as you know Leon, one of their main roles is participating in the public debate-
LEIGH: Anti-poverty charities don't just run soup kitchens - they talk about inequality. Environmental charities don’t just plant trees - they talk about climate change. Legal charities don't just help individual cases, but they also talk about the root causes of Indigenous incarceration. So our public debate is better when we have a whole bunch of charities involved in it, rather than a government that's trying to silence them.
BYNER: So why is this controversial?
LEIGH: The Government has decided that it's going to engage in a crackdown on charities and it's going to do it by giving the charities commissioner - a bloke called Gary Johns, who once called Indigenous women ‘cash cows’ - additional powers in order to deregister charities. That's where you've heard Barnardos speaking out, but they’re just one of dozens of charities who've said that there's no outbreak of lawlessness in the Australian charitable sector. And indeed, the crackdown has been likened by Tim Costello to something that you'd expect to see in Vladimir Putin's Russia.
BYNER: Yes, I saw that quote, and I did smile when he made that analogy. So look, is there anything that can be done here? Because generally speaking, the charities in our community do a tremendous job and without them we'd be in all sorts of bother, wouldn't we?
LEIGH: Yeah, it's just a matter of the Coalition pulling their head in. Their own senators have said that this crackdown is overreach and should be knocked off. There's a Senate committee called the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Delegated Legislation, whose job is basically to look at measures like this. And Coalition and Labor Senators in that committee say ‘don't go ahead with this’. We've had Indigenous charity leaders speaking out and saying that their ability to advocate for First Nations women will be limited by these rules, because it would prevent them for example a holding a rally for risk of someone trespassing or blocking a road, which is the kind of activity that could lead the whole charity to be deregistered.
BYNER: Well, I noticed that there's been recommendations from a committee that led actually by Liberals, that's basically saying, ‘look, you're probably not justified in doing this’. So why would they ignore that?
LEIGH: It beats me. Michael Sukkar is the bloke who is pushing this and he's somebody who has, I would have thought, got enough troubles of his own sorting out his shenanigans with Victorian branch stacking. I'd rather that the government worked with charities rather than working against them, engage constructively with the charitable sector on issues like reporting burdens where there's sensible reforms that could easily be put in place.
BYNER: I don't understand this. Because normally, you would only to a large extent do anything if there was some sort of scandal or information that one charity or more were doing the wrong thing. There's no such contingent here, is there?
LEIGH: Nothing at all. It's just an ideological overreach by a government who has been at loggerheads with charities for the last eight years. Ever since they came to office, they've been attacking charities, trying to shut down their activism. We've had now three successive open letters from the charitable sector to successive Liberal Prime Ministers, saying stop your attacks on charities. And the government, after all, tried to shut down the charities commission for a five year period after it was first announced and still can't work constructively with charities. We've got a whole lot of big issues in Australia that charities are well placed to address, from climate change to poverty to recovery from the pandemic. We need a government that's going to cooperate with and work with charities, and that includes religious charities, many of whom are up in arms about these changes.
BYNER: They've picked an odd group of people to go up against and then upset, I would have thought. I mean, these people have only got their communities at heart and they want to do good things.
LEIGH: Absolutely. I mean, no one's got any time for outrageous law breaking and a charity which is engaged in serious law breaking should be shut down. But what these changes would do would mean that a Catholic charity that organised a Palm Sunday rally for refugees where someone ended up blocking a footpath could then be deregistered for that-
BYNER: For blocking a footpath?!
LEIGH: That's right. That's right. And so that's why you've had the head of St Vincent De Paul saying that this is a big issue. The head of Catholic Social Services Australia has spoken out against it. You’ve got the Australian Institute of Company Directors who's speaking out against it. So there's people from across the ideological spectrum who are saying to the government ‘pull your head in on these measures, be sensible – work with charities, not against them’.
BYNER: Andrew Leigh, thank you. That's the federal Shadow Assistant Minister for Charities Andrew Leigh, making a pretty fair point. It just seems to me that sometimes governments can be overzealous with organisations, and they end up biting the hand that feeds them.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.