Hands off our charities!

HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

WEDNESDAY, 11 AUGUST 2021

I rise in continuation on the Treasury Laws Amendment (2021 Measures No. 2) Bill 2021. Mr Speaker, if you hear the Morrison government speak about charities, you'd think there is an outbreak of lawlessness among Australia's charities, yet the facts speak otherwise. Over the past 3½ years, the charities commissioner has deregistered just two of the nation's 59,000 charities for breaking the law in pursuit of activist goals. That means the annual chance of a charity being deregistered for illegal activism is about 10 in a million, which is about the same as the chance that a typical Australian will commit a murder. But facts have never stood in the way of the Liberals' crackdown on charitable activism.

Their latest proposal would go further than the current law, extending the ability of the charities commissioner to deregister a charity for a summary offence or because the charities commissioner anticipates that the organisation will commit a summary offence.

A summary offence might include blocking a footpath, trespassing or even failing to close a gate on a private property, and deregistration can occur because a charity promotes an event—for example, hands out flyers about it or simply puts it on their Facebook page.

This is of a piece with the way in which the Morrison government has engaged with the charitable sector—not a partnership working with them at a time when we've got an economic slump, half the nation under lockdown and a pandemic threatening the country, not a partnership that recognises the important work that can be done working with environmental charities on climate change, with social justice charities on poverty alleviation, with health charities on tackling COVID, but instead a war on charities. The Liberals introduced a bill in 2013 to shut down the charities commission. They wanted to kill the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, a one-stop shop that had been recommended by more than a dozen reviews, including a bipartisan recommendation from a committee in this House of which former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was a member.

Then, four years later, after they realised that they couldn't get the crossbench to support killing the charities commission, they did the next best thing. They appointed, as head of the charities commission, Gary Johns. When did they do it? In the hours following the same-sex marriage vote, in a period in which they judged that Mr Johns's appointment would get least media attention. This was because they knew that putting Gary Johns in charge of the charities commission was like putting Bronwyn Bishop in charge of parliamentary entitlements. It was like putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank. This is a man who has criticised Indigenous women as cash cows, who has attacked charities such as Recognise and Beyond Blue, who has complained that there is a good deal of what he calls 'impure altruism' among charities. So it wasn't surprising that a senior figure in the charity sector described Mr Johns's appointment as charity commissioner as 'bizarre'.

Since the Liberals came to office in 2013, major charities have written three open letters to the Prime Minister complaining about attacks on the charitable sector. The latest attack is one which would reduce the scope for charitable activism. This is because, fundamentally, the Morrison government want legal charities to be talking about individual defendants, not discussing the broader issues of law reform. They want environmental charities to be planting trees, not talking about climate change. They want social justice charities to be running soup kitchens, not talking about the causes of child poverty. Former charities minister Senator Seselja, when introducing the changes, said that this was about a crackdown on 'activist organisations masquerading as charities'. That bells the cat. It's very clear that, in Senator Seselja's view and in the view of the Morrison government, so-called good charities don't do activism; so-called good charities are seen but not heard; they stay out of the way of the government.

This fundamentally misunderstands the important role that charities play in Australia's public debate. It misunderstands the fact that charities, whether they agree or disagree with the government's agenda, enrich the public conversation because they bring the lived experience of the people that they help and their vast experience of working across the sector. At a time when we have the degree of civic connectedness falling to a new low, we need to be encouraging people to join, to volunteer, to engage with their local community groups. At a time when Australian National University data shows that volunteering rates have fallen to an all-time low and data on charitable tax deductions suggests the share of people making charitable donations has fallen to the lowest level on record, we need to be encouraging charities. They are vital to Australia's future.

But charities are shocked by the latest proposals from the Morrison government. The push-back has come right across the ideological spectrum, from Hillsong Church to the World Wildlife Fund.

A summary offence might include blocking a footpath, trespassing or even failing to close a gate on a private property, and deregistration can occur because a charity promotes an event—for example, hands out flyers about it or simply puts it on their Facebook page.

This is of a piece with the way in which the Morrison government has engaged with the charitable sector—not a partnership working with them at a time when we've got an economic slump, half the nation under lockdown and a pandemic threatening the country, not a partnership that recognises the important work that can be done working with environmental charities on climate change, with social justice charities on poverty alleviation, with health charities on tackling COVID, but instead a war on charities. The Liberals introduced a bill in 2013 to shut down the charities commission. They wanted to kill the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, a one-stop shop that had been recommended by more than a dozen reviews, including a bipartisan recommendation from a committee in this House of which former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was a member.

Then, four years later, after they realised that they couldn't get the crossbench to support killing the charities commission, they did the next best thing. They appointed, as head of the charities commission, Gary Johns. When did they do it? In the hours following the same-sex marriage vote, in a period in which they judged that Mr Johns's appointment would get least media attention. This was because they knew that putting Gary Johns in charge of the charities commission was like putting Bronwyn Bishop in charge of parliamentary entitlements. It was like putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank. This is a man who has criticised Indigenous women as ‘cash cows’, who has attacked charities such as Recognise and Beyond Blue, who has complained that there is a good deal of what he calls 'impure altruism' among charities. So it wasn't surprising that a senior figure in the charity sector described Mr Johns's appointment as charity commissioner as 'bizarre'.

Since the Liberals came to office in 2013, major charities have written three open letters to the Prime Minister complaining about attacks on the charitable sector. The latest attack is one which would reduce the scope for charitable activism. This is because, fundamentally, the Morrison government want legal charities to be talking about individual defendants, not discussing the broader issues of law reform. They want environmental charities to be planting trees, not talking about climate change. They want social justice charities to be running soup kitchens, not talking about the causes of child poverty. Former charities minister Senator Seselja, when introducing the changes, said that this was about a crackdown on 'activist organisations masquerading as charities'. That bells the cat. It's very clear that, in Senator Seselja's view and in the view of the Morrison government, so-called good charities don't do activism; so-called good charities are seen but not heard; they stay out of the way of the government.

This fundamentally misunderstands the important role that charities play in Australia's public debate. It misunderstands the fact that charities, whether they agree or disagree with the government's agenda, enrich the public conversation because they bring the lived experience of the people that they help and their vast experience of working across the sector. At a time when we have the degree of civic connectedness falling to a new low, we need to be encouraging people to join, to volunteer, to engage with their local community groups. At a time when Australian National University data shows that volunteering rates have fallen to an all-time low and data on charitable tax deductions suggests the share of people making charitable donations has fallen to the lowest level on record, we need to be encouraging charities. They are vital to Australia's future.

But charities are shocked by the latest proposals from the Morrison government. The push-back has come right across the ideological spectrum, from Hillsong Church to the World Wildlife Fund.

It has come from respected leaders such as Tim Costello, who has likened the change to Vladimir Putin's Russia. The law firm Arnold Bloch Leibler believes the changes are 'fundamentally inconsistent with our democratic system of government'. Law Council president Jacoba Brasch said the changes would 'leave registered charities, including faith based charities, at grave risk of political interference'.

Religious charities are concerned. Anglicare, BaptistCare, UnitingCare and the St Vincent de Paul Society have all criticised the crackdown on charities, and in yesterday's Australian Financial Review there was a full-page advertisement on page 7: 'Don't stop Australia's charities from speaking out.' It read:

We come together as a group of charities providing vital services to the most vulnerable Australians. Charity is not just about helping people in poverty or experiencing disadvantage. It's about creating a country where inequality doesn't exist. Sometimes, this requires us to speak up when we see policy that does not promote the common good.

Our work is driven by our mission, and we speak out with and on behalf of millions of Australians who are denied a voice. We know that positive change comes when people are heard.

New regulations on the charity sector are before the Australian parliament now. These new rules undermine the legitimate and lawful advocacy that is at the core of what we do. They will silence the voices of the people we represent, and stifle our mission to create a just society where all Australians can live their lives with dignity.

The huge administrative and cost burden, red tape and risk these regulations create will divert our time and resources from the frontline services we provide to our communities, hurting the Australians who can least afford it. This is not the partnership the charitable sector wants with the government.

We call on the Senate to disallow these regulations and stand up for Australian charities.

The statement is signed by St Vincent de Paul Society, Catholic Social Services Australia, Anglicare, UnitingCare Australia and others. It recognises the strong united voice of the sector speaking out against these retrograde changes. A statement from Hands Off Our Charities on 18 March 2021 said:

As charities, we take our responsibilities to the public very seriously and we want to be accountable to our communities and supporters. We have supported the role of the ACNC in ensuring that public confidence in the charity sector is maintained. However, we already face appropriate penalties for pursuing unlawful purposes and breaking the law. All these proposed regulations would do, is single out charities for disproportionate penalties following minor breaches of a kind that are unparalleled for any other group, including political parties and businesses.

That is signed by a vast range of organisations, including Amnesty International, Anglicare Australia, the Australian Centre for International Justice, the Australian Council of Social Service, Communities Council of Australia, Community Legal Centres Australia, Country Needs People, Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, Foundation for Young Australians, the Fred Hollows Foundation, Friends of the Earth, Oxfam, Public Health Association, Public Interest Advocacy Centre, RESULTS International Australia, the Queensland Conservation Council, Save the Children, Tearfund, the Wide Bay Burnett Environment Council and many others.

Alice Drury, of the Human Rights Law Centre, said in the Australian Financial Review on 22 July 2021:

These rules would silence charities at a time when their advocacy is more crucial than ever, as charities support Australian communities through unprecedented crises like catastrophic bushfires and the pandemic.

She went on to say:

These proposed laws are a case of extreme overreach, and have no place in a democracy.

Kasy Chambers, the executive director of Anglicare, said:

They are not just an attack on charities. They are an attack on democracy.

We’re also calling on the Government to withdraw these changes – and end these attacks for good

She pointed out that Anglicare employs 29,000 staff and volunteers, and under these changes they would have to think about potential summary offences for every single one of those people, including a volunteer who might work with them just a couple of times a year.

The Australian Institute of Company Directors, representing 40,000 directors, said on 15 March 2021:

… the AICD does not does consider it appropriate that the ACNC Commissioner has the discretion to remove charities from the register in the circumstances proposed. Given the severe consequences that removal from the ACNC register can have on a charity (including losing income tax concessions), such a power is only appropriate if it is proportionate to the misconduct and subject to procedural fairness such as rights of appeal.

David Crosbie, the CEO of the Community Council for Australia, said:

Any suggestion that the ACNC commissioner can act against a charity because he or she believes they may do something wrong—even when there is no evidence they have done something wrong—seems at best to be against every principle of justice, fairness and procedural transparency, all of which should be fundamental values for any regulator.

Mr Crosbie went on to say:

Imagine if ASIC could de-register any company it wanted to just because as a regulator they thought the company might do the wrong thing?

Would business sectors in Australia accept that as a governance standard?

Clearly not, and that's why the Australian Institute of Company Directors has spoken out so strongly against the government's proposed changes.

Tim Costello, chair of the Community Council of Australia, said:

When I first read the proposed changes to governance standards I honestly started thinking about Stalinist Russia and other countries where judgements about which groups can or cannot operate freely are taken solely to protect the powerful.

Mr Costello went on to say:

I think Australia is better than this, and I struggle to understand any rationale for extending this kind of discretion to a charities regulator.

Marc Purcell, the CEO of the Australian Council for International Development, points out:

At a time when we've got military juntas shutting down civil society in Myanmar, Thailand and China … Australia needs to be supporting diverse opinions, the right of free speech, citizens' right to protest and certainly not muzzling charitable organisations.

As I mentioned before, the submission by Arnold Bloch Liebler to Treasury said that the legislation was 'fundamentally inconsistent with our democratic system of government' and that the changes 'are a clear fetter on freedom of political communication and on dissent by civil society'. They have suggested that these changes may indeed be unconstitutional.

Toby O’Connor, the CEO of St Vincent de Paul, said: 'The Catholic Church people, generally around Easter, have a parade or walk in support of refugees, and in the new proposal, if some of our people were blocking a public area, if they failed to move on under a direction, then any charity that's associated with that march could be disqualified from being a charity.'

Joe Zabar, the former deputy CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia, makes a similar point, saying:

The Church's traditional Palm Sunday Refugee Rally may trigger action against any Catholic charity that promotes or participates in the rally. While it may not be the intention of the government to include such events, the reality is that the framing of the proposed regulatory changes may capture Catholic charities simply exercising their rights to assemble and advocate for causes which matter to them.

The bill before the House makes sensible changes requiring non-government entities seeking endorsement as a deductible gift recipient to be a charity registered with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, or be operated by a registered charity. It will improve the consistency of regulation, governance and oversight for deductible gift recipients and support confidence in the sector. But this sensible change is being brought in at a time in which the Morrison government is engaging in yet another attack on charities, prompting yet another open letter from charities, now the fourth open letter from Australian charities in the time of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government, crying out as to why the war on charities continues when there's so much good work that could be done by a government that wants to work with charities, rather than against them. Senator Catryna Bilyk's bipartisan Senate report recommended some 2½ years ago that we fix the laws around charitable fundraising that currently require organisations to register in seven different states and territories if they're to fundraise online across the country, wasting about a week's worth of staff member effort for every charity that wants to raise money online every year.

This would be sensible reform.

It would remove reporting duplication. It would fit philosophically with the coalition's bent in favour of so-called red tape reduction. Yet that bipartisan Senate committee set a two-year deadline, which expired in February this year. The government hasn't implemented these changes, which cost Australia's charity sector more than a million dollars a month in complying with unnecessary regulations.

There's work that could be done on charitable passports, on making sure that the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission works even more like ASIC, the corporations watchdog, to ensure that charities have a one-stop shop for reporting, on ceding more of those state and territory regulators' powers to the national body and on ensuring that charities are able to minimise the amount of time they spend filling out forms and maximise the amount of time they spend helping the most vulnerable in our community. These would be good changes. The timing for them would be right. At a moment when Australians are more disconnected than ever before in the postwar era, we need a government that will work with charities. Instead, we have a government that's working against charities.

Labor will support the sensible charity reforms in this bill, but we will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with Australia's charities in opposing the crackdown on charitable activism that has seen the fourth open letter from Australia's charities pleading with the Liberals to stop the war on charities.

 

 

 


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  • Robert Cole
    commented 2021-08-16 19:10:16 +1000
    The lnp Labor greens take Australia for granted covid19
    Vacine,cash ban
    They do not represent our interests
    The lnp are a fraudulent mob
    A case either lnp goes or will ruin many Aussies
  • Andrew Leigh MP
    published this page in What's New 2021-08-11 18:22:46 +1000


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