CHARITY AND NOT-FOR-PROFIT SECTOR PRE-ELECTION DEBATE OPENING REMARKS
FRIDAY, 10 MAY 2019
Subjects: The Liberals’ war on charities, the Liberals’ no show at the debate, Labor’s 10 point plan for the charities and not-for-profit sector.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW MINISTER FOR CHARITIES AND NOT-FOR-PROFITS: Well, thank you very much David and I’ll weave into my remarks the origins of this place, it will come up in just a moment. I acknowledge that we meet on the land of the Wurundjeri peoples of the Kulin Nation and pay my respects their elders. David [Crosbie], thank you for organising today and for your leadership. The charitable sector owes you a great debt for all that you do. I recognise Rachel Siewert and acknowledge the empty chair for a Coalition representative, with David’s invitations having been turned down by Zed Seselja, Kevin Andrews and Paul Fletcher. It's a pity not to have them here. I think the sector is owed the kind of charity debate that we had in the previous two elections, and it’s a shame the Coalition is a no-show today. I also acknowledge the range of charity and not-for-profit leaders here today, including Sue Woodward and Adrienne Picone.
When I think back to my teens and twenties, some of the most important memories are volunteering. I helped build walking tracks in Lane Cove and Nowra with the Australian Trust for Conservation Volunteers. I dressed up in a clown suit to sell juggling balls to raise money for Oxfam. I volunteered as a law student at Redfern Legal Centre, at the Welfare Rights Legal Centre in the ACT. When I think about my three boys and when they’re at their best, it's often when they’ve joined me on one of my regular park clean ups. Doing something for the community, rather than doing something for themselves. A life lived in service to others is a life well lived. In that, I'm following somewhat in the footsteps of my grandfather, a Methodist minister who worked here in Melbourne and who passed away in 1970 doing a run up Mount Wellington in Hobart to raise money for overseas aid.
The notion of service to the community is one with which you're all intimately engaged. You wouldn't be here otherwise now and I thank you very much for your service. But we need to worry too about the overall strength of our civic society. When I was studying at Harvard, I worked in 2001 as part of the research group for Robert Putnam who had just published Bowling Alone. Working with Putnam led me to look at the trends in civic engagement in Australia and ultimately write them up in a 2010 book, Disconnected. I found in Disconnected much of what Putnam had found in Bowling Alone – a decline in membership of community groups such as Scouts, Guides, Rotary and Lions. A decline in the share of Australians who know their neighbours and the number of close friends that people report. Worryingly still as I've gone back to those figures to update them now in 2019, the trend downward seems to have continued.
The decline in civic health in Australia hasn't been helped by the policies of the current government. It's no exaggeration to say that the sector has been facing a war on charities. Under the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison Government, we've seen two open letters from the sector to successive Liberal prime ministers. We've seen attacks on the right to advocate on law reform, which my colleague Mark Dreyfus has argued very strongly against. We've seen attacks on environmental charities’ ability to advocate, which my colleagues Mark Butler and Tony Burke have pushed back strongly against. We've seen the argument that anti-poverty charities can run soup kitchens, but they shouldn't talk about the root causes of disadvantage. Former Shadow Services Minister Jenny Macklin and current Shadow Social Services Minister Linda Burney, along with Shadow Assistant Minister Jenny McAllister, have been active in standing up for the right of social services charities to advocate.
It's no surprise that a Pro Bono survey reported that two out of three charities say they find it harder to have their voices heard by the federal government than five years ago. Just last year the charity sector wasted a huge amount of energy when the government attempted to drag into foreign donations reform a whole range of charities that work with international partners. Labor worked with the Hands Off our Charities Alliance to make sure that those laws successfully got foreign money out of politics without hurting internationally-engaged charities and not-for-profits. But the process unnecessarily wasted the time of charities and non-profits.
As Shadow Minister for Charities and Not-for-Profits, a position that Bill Shorten created for the first time after the 2016 election, I've been at the forefront working with your sector on behalf of Labor on pushing back against these attacks on the sector. But we've also been crafting a positive agenda. Labor has run a series of Reconnected forums, held 17 of them now across Australia - from Perth to Sydney to Darwin to Launceston - talking with more than 1500 leaders of charities and not-for-profits about what organisations can learn from one another about how to solve the ‘disconnected’ problem. We've heard from Greening Australia which runs singles tree planning events, where you can improve the quality of the environment and perhaps meet the love of your life.
And Parkrun, who’ve streamlined their administration so volunteers simply get to do what they love - organising a free five kilometre run at 8am every Saturday morning. GIVIT has set up a virtual warehouse, ensuring that when people want to donate anything from a laptop to a washing machine, they're able to do it without the goods sitting in a dusty warehouse in between. TedX Talks are proliferating across Australia, which accounts for six times as many of these community-building talks as our population would lead you to expect.
Two days ago, I launched Labor’s charity policy at the headquarters of SANE Australia here in Melbourne. Our ten point policy covers a range of issues which I know have been of considerable importance to the sector. I outlined them briefly on a Wednesday but I wanted to use the opportunity this morning to go into our policies in more detail.
- Labor would establish a stronger and more productive not-for-profit sector by setting up a Not-for-Profit Sector Expert Reference Panel. We know that the not-for-profit sector accounts for some 8 per cent of GDP, employing around 1.3 million Australians and a key ask of the sector has been to improve capacity building. Just imagine if we got even a small gain in productivity for a sector that accounts for 8 per cent of GDP. That would have massive benefits across society. So that reference panel will work with Treasury, charities and not-for-profits, business, philanthropy, volunteering and key stakeholders to produce a sector development plan over the course of 12 months after its establishment.
- We’d establish a ‘Building Community - Building Capacity’ Working Group. Its role would first of all be to implement the recommendations from the Expert Reference Panel and secondly to catalyse the role of charity and community sector as frontline responders to the increase in community isolation and the growing epidemic of loneliness, an issue that my parliamentary colleagues Andrew Giles and Graham Perrett have both spoken about. We’d draw on members from charities, community sector organisations, academia and philanthropy. That work would be funded through the allocation that is presently provided to the secretariat for the Prime Minister's Business and Community Partnership, which under Labor would be discontinued.
- Labor would work to fix fundraising. We've had a terrific Senate report done by my colleague Catryna Bilyk, which came down in February of this year, entitled Charity Fundraising in the 21st Century. If you're interested in reducing the paperwork burden currently estimated at some $15 million a year that is imposed on fundraising, then this is a must read document. It sets out a clear pathway open for reforming fundraising over the next two years and if elected a Shorten Labor Government will get on with the job.
- We would entrench the freedom to advocate – a Statement of Principles into the Not-for-Profit Sector Freedom to Advocate Act that recognise the benefits of advocacy by charities and not-for-profits. This is being contested too - as I mentioned before, the attempts by the Coalition to stop advocacy by environmental groups, legal groups, anti-poverty groups has been a systematic assault on the democratic principle that our political system works best when there's a multiplicity of voices and when those who are the frontline service responders are also able to feed their wisdom into policy. Labor will insert standard terms that support and protect advocacy into Commonwealth funding agreements.
- We’ll reinstate the annual charities report which draws on the data collected by the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission to present a comprehensive picture of the value and economic footprint of the charity sector. That report was discontinued by the current ACNC Commissioner and we believe has taken away a key resource for the sector.
- We would amend the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Act to give the advisory board for the charities commission executive power, allowing it to initiate its own projects and report independently to the responsible minister. That's been a recommendation of the ACNC review, which has been languishing on the desk of the government for the last year. Now I say languishing on the desk, but actually it's languished on a couple of different desks because in the time since the report came down the Coalition went from their fifth minister responsible for the ACNC to the sixth minister. So as you know, they've gone through three prime ministers and three treasurers, but the rate of churn for the minister or parliamentary secretary responsible for the ACNC has been twice as fast. You just can't get across the key issues facing your sector in a year when you know you're getting churned over within 12 months for the next person. That's been a real problem for the sector and the stability of personnel will be a core priority for Labor. It's no great surprise that a government which spent from 2011 to 2016 attempting to abolish the ACNC then when it was unable to do so installed a charity critic as the head of the ACNC. We believe that was an inappropriate appointment and if the government was really proud of the appointment of Gary Johns to head the ACNC, it probably would have announced it at some other time than a matter of hours after Parliament had passed the same sex marriage vote. That's the kind of thing you do when you don't want to get attention for an unpopular act.
- A Shorten Labor Government would ensure the charity passport scheme works for charities. We would do this by engaging with Commonwealth departments, doing the hard work of making sure that the annual information statement harvests the information that's needed by Commonwealth grant makers. The idea of the charity passport is to again reduce the paperwork burden on Australian charities and we would engage with the sector in doing that.
- We would provide greater transparency around the remuneration of senior staff in Australia's charities. In Britain, there's been a set of rules in place for a while now which require public reporting of executive remuneration among charities. So under a Labor Government, large charities - those with revenues in excess of a million dollars, as defined by the charities commission - would be required to report employee salaries above $100,000 by listing the number of employees in each $25,000 band starting from $100,000. We believe it would be in the interests of the sector to publicly list their highest salary. Now to be clear, there would not be sanctions associated with this. We’d work constructively with the sector, but we do believe that it's in the interests of the charity and not-for-profit sector for donors to have similar information to that which is available for corporate shareholders in large firms.
- We would end the war on charities. Under a Shorten Government, we would end this constant conflictual relationship and seek to build a positive partnership with the sector.
- We would be a government that would have the first charities minister in Australian history. Having your own minister is vital for being able to engage with government. Parliamentarians on all sides talk a lot about ‘one stop shops’, but just as it’s appropriate for small business to have a small business minister, so too Labor believes the charity and not-for-profit sector should have its own minister. So under us, you will get that for the first time.
I'm very grateful to those organisations who have spoken out in support of our charities policy, including Our Community, the Community Council for Australia, Save the Children, the Australian Conservation Foundation, Volunteering Australia, Philanthropy Australia, Justice Connect, the Human Rights Law Centre and ACOSS. It has been a true delight to work with such an engaged and constructive sector over the course of our 2000 or so days in Opposition. If the results go our way on the 18th of May, I look forward to continuing that relationship. Thank you.
Authorised by Noah Carroll ALP Canberra.