Keeping the ACNC opens the door to real reform - Pro Bono Australia

Last week I joined NSW Deputy Opposition Leader Linda Burney in announcing that a future Foley Labor Government would sign New South Wales up to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission. In this piece for Pro Bono Australia, I've looked at why that's exactly the kind of practical red-tape reform Australian charities will benefit from. 

Keeping the ACNC opens the door to real reform, Pro Bono Australia, 24 February

Do you run a not-for-profit in Victoria or Queensland? What about a charity in Western Australia or Tasmania? If so, you’ll know that qualifying for state and federal charitable status means jumping through a lot of hoops. With two sets of paperwork to fill in and two bureaucracies to navigate, it can take a lot of time just to get to the point where you can actually start helping your community.

That’s why I was pleased to join the NSW Opposition last week in announcing that a future Foley Labor Government would sign that state up to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission. By aligning the New South Wales state rules with the national scheme, this decision would make life much easier for over 18,000 charities across the state.

Here’s how it works: instead of having two separate regulatory schemes, any not-for-profit that registers with the national charities commission would automatically be registered in New South Wales as well. That also means they’d qualify for state concessions and exemptions simply by becoming a Deductible Gift Recipient at the federal level.

That’s how things already work for not-for-profits in South Australia and the ACT. The governments in those jurisdictions have progressively linked their charities rules to the national scheme over the past few years, cutting red tape for local groups and streamlining government in one go. In this way, the charities commission acts for not-for-profits like the Australian Securities and Investments Commission acts for business: as a one-stop-shop for registration and reporting.

When Labor set up the charities commission back in 2012, we hoped to one day make it a national scheme like those in Ireland and the United Kingdom. With South Australia, the ACT and now New South Wales coming on board (if Labor wins the election) we’re getting closer to achieving that goal. With the change of governments in Victoria and Queensland, there’s new hope that these states will sign up to the national charities regulator as well.

Of course, the charities commission shouldn’t be a partisan agency, or one that only Labor Governments are willing to get involved with. Politicians from across the spectrum should care about helping charities spend less time doing paperwork and more time out in the community.

Unfortunately, for the past 17 months the Abbott Liberal Government has pursued a policy of abolishing the charities commission. That has understandably made their state Liberal counterparts a little loathe to act on linking charities regulation to the national scheme.

Recently, new Social Services Minister Scott Morrison signalled that the government might be starting to give ground on this. He’s reportedly been telling sector partners that scrapping the commission isn’t a high priority and that he has ‘no immediate plans’ to move forward with this.

That’s a very welcome shift from former Minister Kevin Andrews’ dogmatic refusal to listen to what the sector has been saying about the benefits of the commission. As regular readers of Pro Bono would know, this site’s last two State of the Sector surveys showed that four in five charities back having a national regulator. Even after more than a year of campaigning by the government to ditch it, support for the charities commission has barely wavered.

As Tim Costello from World Vision, David Crosbie from the Communities Council of Australia and countless others have pointed out, scrapping the commission was always a bad idea. It’s time that Minister Morrison officially dropped this policy.

That would give charities some certainty about what’s happening in the sector; certainty that is particularly needed at a time when the Abbott Government is causing major upheaval elsewhere through its funding cuts and changes to grants programs.

But committing to keep the commission would also give more state governments the confidence to link their own charities rules to it. There’s no good reason that not-for-profits should continue filling out duplicate sets of paperwork when the charities commission could be their simple, one-stop-shop. Similarly, there’s no real benefit to having state and federal governments both making rulings about which groups qualify as charities or what supports and exemptions they should be entitled to.

In other words, removing the uncertainty about the commission’s future would also remove a major obstacle to reforms that would benefit every one of Australia’s 60,000 charities. So let’s keep the national regulator and use it to lighten the load on not-for-profits in other ways. That’s one change in the charity sector that my party could fully support Minister Morrison on.

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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.