Partnering with philanthropy and civil society: a Labor view - Speech




Thank you to Alan Schwartz for that kind introduction, and to Philanthropy Australia for bringing you all into the nation’s Parliament. I would also like to congratulate Tony Stuart on his appointment as the newest member of the government’s Community Business Partnership.

I come bearing apologies from the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, who would very much like to have been with you today. As many of you would know, it was Bill who developed and delivered the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission when he was Minister for Financial Services back in 2012. He has an abiding interest in the community sector.

For centuries, people have given to help others. Many people give from a sense of religious duty. Whether it’s the Jewish tradition of tzedakah, the Muslim notion of zakat or the Christian tradition of tithing, the faithful have always seen an obligation to give.

Philanthropy is an important form of social capital in Australia. Five years ago, I wrote Disconnected, a book that tracked various metrics of community spirit over the decades. Based on charitable deductions data from the Australian Taxation Office, I estimated that the share of Australians who donate to charity had not risen much since the late-1970s. Other donations data showed the same pattern – the share of people who give blood slipped slightly over the period from 1980 to 2010.

But while the share of people donating to charity hadn’t risen, the amount of money did increase: from less than $100 million in the late-1970s to around $4 billion today. One reason for this is inequality: as the top 1 percent have doubled their share of national income, they have chosen to give more of it away. I was pleased to read a Pro Bono Australia article last year declare 2014 ‘the year of the mega gifts’, citing donors such as Paul Ramsay, Brian Trudinger and Westpac.

Yet we also have a task ahead in broadening philanthropy across the population. During his term as Western Australian Governor, Michael McCusker made a point of urging everyone in that state – from school children to billionaires – to think actively about philanthropy.

Philanthropy is an important part of Australia’s civil society sector – you know it and Labor believes it too. The civil society sector, in turn, is absolutely crucial to building strong, healthy and connected communities in this country, supporting responsive and flexible service delivery and promoting a strong democracy.    

In my remarks today, I want to speak first about Labor’s views on the role of philanthropy, as well as some of the work we’ve done – in government and since – to strengthen Australia’s civil society and culture of charitable giving. I hope you’ll forgive me a few political remarks in the mix here, both because there are some areas where Labor is concerned about the course the current government has chosen, and simply because this is the Federal Parliament after all. I also then want to look ahead to where my party sees emerging opportunities for government and the charitable sector to do good together.  

Labor’s view on the role of philanthropy

If I could lay out Labor’s view of philanthropy and the broader not-for-profit sector very briefly, it would go something like this.

Philanthropy is not about donors stepping up so that government can step back. We see you as a partner with government in finding new and creative solutions to the challenge of building a better society.

It isn’t just money that you contribute. It is your time, your energy, your focus and your commitment to making a difference – without these things money won’t be well spent or directed to its most productive use. So we value your commitment to giving money in ways that do good just as much as the fact that you give it at all.

One of the particularly important ways that charities and philanthropic organisations ‘do good’ is by advocating for political and policy change that is in the community’s broad best interests. I think it would be to the very great detriment of Australian civil society if groups like the ones you represent no longer engaged in advocacy. That is why I am worried about the moves afoot which may restrict your capacity to do so.

I know you are all aware of the current Parliamentary inquiry on the Deductible Gift Recipient status of environmental charities. There are almost 600 environmental groups that currently qualify for this status; they work on everything from protecting the Great Barrier Reef against dredging to collecting litter in our local parks. 

Members of the Government have said they’re concerned about environmental groups getting tax deductions when they’re not doing real environmental work. The committee’s terms of reference include exploring the extent to which these not-for-profits are carrying out ‘on-ground environmental works’.

This suggests that eco-groups are acting improperly if they get involved in political and community advocacy on environmental causes. But the High Court has specifically ruled groups like these have a right to be part of the political conversation. In 2010, the nation’s seven most senior judges declared it ‘indispensable’ for charities to have the right to speak out, to ensure ‘representative and responsible government’.   

I’m concerned this inquiry is really about silencing dissent amongst environmental groups, and sending a message to other not-for-profits at the same time. If the Abbott Government has genuine concerns about some environmental groups, the right thing to do isn’t to strip DGR status from all environmental charities. The right thing to do would be to refer them to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.

The commission was specifically set up so that it could keep an eye on charities and make sure they’re doing the right thing. It is a Labor achievement that we are very proud of, and we know that it has been strongly embraced by the charitable sector as well over the past few years. 

Labor’s contribution to the civil society sector

That’s a nice segue away from the pointy, present-day politics and on to some of the positive ways Labor is supporting a strong charitable sector with good links to government. 

The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission

We established the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission to act as a one-stop-shop for charity regulation and resource for Australians seeking to make good decisions about how to spend their donor dollars.

The commission opened its doors in December 2012, and the inimitable Susan Pascoe was appointed as its inaugural Commissioner. She’s held that post ever since, through some very trying times for the commission. I want to acknowledge Susan’s enormous contribution in building the commission from the ground up and steering it through the significant milestones it has achieved in just a few short years.

Amongst those milestones are building the Australian-first National Charities Register, which now has over 58,000 charities on it. In addition to protecting Australians from scammers, the creation of this register has allowed us to better understand the real size, depth and economic contribution of the charity sector for the first time.

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. Instead of operating parallel state and federal regulatory schemes, we’d like to get to a point where any not-for-profit that registers with the national charities commission would automatically be registered in their home state as well. They would also 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; I recently joined my NSW Labor colleagues in announcing that a future Foley Government would sign that state up too. 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. Minister Morrison’s comments this morning are an encouraging sign that the government is coming on board with that agenda.

We can’t move forward with this until the current government commits to keeping the charities commission open. You would know that I’ve been pushing for some years now to get such a commitment from the government, and there have been some welcome signs in the past few months – and in fact minutes – that the government has reconsidered its position. Scott Morrison’s comments this morning suggest that the government has all-but-abandoned its election commitment to scrap the charities commission. I hope he formalises that by withdrawing the charities commission abolition bill from the parliament.

Formally committing to keep the commission would give more state governments the confidence to link their own rules to it. There’s no good reason that charities should continue filling out duplicate sets of paperwork when the 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. A future Shorten Labor Government would give the sector more certainty by keeping the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission and continuing to develop the kind of harmonised national scheme I’ve just outlined.

Labor’s Community Sector Partnership

Since going into Opposition, we’ve continued to work on ways to strengthen civil society. One of the vehicles for this is Labor’s Community Sector Partnership, which met for the first time in April 2015.

It brings together leaders from the community sector to outline priorities for social policy reform and set a new agenda for working together to deliver positive social change.

The partnership is about providing a mechanism for Government and the community sector to work together to design, implement and deliver policy. It is an important first step in developing new approaches to solving complex problems.

Federal Labor’s Community Sector Partnership will continue to meet to discuss new and emerging issues in the lead up to the next election. This will begin with the revitalisation of the National Compact with the Not-For-Profit Sector. 

Under a Shorten Government, the Labor Community Sector Partnership will meet regularly to continue to inform and advise on the best approaches to tackling new and emerging community issues. We see philanthropy organisations like yours as being an important part of that conversation. Part of the reason we were so keen to have someone here today even though Bill ultimately couldn’t make it was to say that we don’t intend to wait until we’re in government to get that conversation going – our door is open, many members of the Labor Opposition are already engaging with you individually and we want to see those ties continue to grow over the coming months and years.

What future for Australian philanthropy?

In the remaining few moments I want to talk a little about how I’d like to see charitable giving in Australia evolve and grow in the future. I’m sure that most of you are familiar with the idea of ‘effective altruism’, which has been developed by thinkers like Peter Singer and William MacAskill.

In his book Doing Good Better, William MacAskill emphasises that if you want to make the world a better place, it’s great to work for a charity. But it’s also okay, he notes, to spend time in the corporate sector, and donating a share of your earnings to charity. The main thing is that we make our altruistic decisions deliberately and with purpose. MacAskill points out that most of us have about 80,000 hours of work – a figure that always focuses my mind – and that we should each ask the question: how can I do the most good in the most people’s lives in the time I have remaining.

Effective altruism isn’t just about how much time and money we give, it’s also about thinking carefully who we give to. That’s what’s great about charity rating sites such as, which have moved beyond the simplistic approach of comparing administrative spending, and rate charities according to the outcomes they produce for each dollar they receive. Among the top GiveWell charities is the Against Malaria Foundation, which I’m pleased to say just received its tax deductible gift recipient status in Australia.

One way of assessing efficacy is to carry out rigorous evaluations on charity-funded projects. I’m a big believer in randomised controlled trials and careful evaluation of policy interventions. By figuring out what works and what doesn’t, we can limit the amount of time and money we waste pursuing programs that won’t get the outcomes we want. We can then channel these precious resources into the broadest possible delivery of programs that will.

Aside from this emphasis on using evidence to drive charity decision-making, the other element that appeals in the effective altruism approach is the way it encourages us to set priorities and methodically work through them. There’s a military axiom which says that ‘to defend everywhere is to defend nowhere’. The same goes for charitable spending. If we spread our resources too thinly or in a haphazard way, we won’t be able to effect meaningful change anywhere. One of the great advantages of Australia’s having the best-targeted social safety net in the world is that it allows us to focus on the people who most need help and deliver sufficient support to make a difference.

I believe the Australian charity sector could continue to improve the effectiveness and impact of the work you do by drawing in more insights from the effective altruism movement. I’m very interested to speak further with you both here today and going forward about the evaluation mechanisms and evidence base we can put in place to help ensure that we ‘do good, better’. 

As I said a few moments ago, Labor sees each of you and the organisations you represent as partners with us in building a stronger Australian community. Events like today’s summit are important for building the links and relationships that underpin that partnership, so thank you all for being here, and welcome to the Parliament.       



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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.