ABC CANBERRA MORNINGS
MONDAY, 22 FEBRUARY 2021
SUBJECTS: The Morrison Government’s latest front in the war on charities; Brittany Higgins, and the right of every woman to feel safe and be safe in the workplace; Vaccine rollout program.
ADAM SHIRLEY, HOST: Draft legislation that oversees the workings of charities has caused some criticism within the sector. The draft legislation includes a provision that the commissioner, currently Gary Johns, could revoke charity status of an organisation if he reasonably believed it was, quote, ‘more likely than not that the entity will not comply with a governance standard’. So does that mean that the commissioner can, on suspicion, revoke the charity status of a charity? Andrew Leigh is federal Member for Fenner, Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury and is one of those with significant concerns of what this draft legislation could mean if it's passed. Andrew Leigh, good morning to you.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: Good morning, Adam. Great to be with you.
SHIRLEY: How legitimate is it for the commissioner to have oversight and the right to revoke charity status if a charity is not following the law?
LEIGH: It’s certainly vital that a charity that breaks the law gets deregistered, and that's what current law says. So a charity that engages in or promotes activities that are unlawful or contrary to public policy can be deregistered. But this proposed law does something entirely different. It says that if the charity commissioner anticipates a breach, then he can revoke the charity status of that organisation. Just imagine what outcry there’d be in the business community if suddenly we said that ASIC, the corporate watchdog, could deregister companies simply because it anticipated that those companies were going to break the law. Business leaders would be rightly outraged.
SHIRLEY: Presumably the commissioner would have evidence or at least reasonable grounds for anticipating some sort of law breaking. Does the draft legislation account for what sort of argument would need to be put forward?
LEIGH: It's got very little detail around that. And you've got to worry, particularly with this current commissioner. Gary Johns has said that poor women were being used as ‘cash cows’, that Australia is ‘sucking in too many of the wrong type of immigrant’. He said there's a great deal of what he calls ‘impure altruism in the charity business’-
SHIRLEY: Are these comments all made prior to his stand as commissioner? I mean, many people have a history and a record in various roles of saying and doing some things which then don't occur in their time in public office.
LEIGH: Well, it's true that he's held his tongue on some of these issues after becoming charity commissioner. But it doesn't change the fact that before becoming charity commissioner, he attacked a range of charities including Beyond Blue and Recognise. Gary Johns is somebody who has spent most of his life as a critic of charities. He's the guy that the Morrison Government appointed to run the charities commission after they couldn't get legislation through Parliament to shut it down. To give him additional powers to deregister charities because he anticipates they're going to break the law is sending a shiver up the spine of many charity leaders.
SHIRLEY: I want to move to that legislation in a moment, but you say Gary Johns’ history has criticised some charities. Others, including him and others who see his role as important, would say that that is him holding charities to account to fulfil their social contract. Is it true to say that in part your comments are subjective on your view of his role?
LEIGH: I speak to a huge range of charities, Adam, and certainly I'm yet to speak to a single charity that thinks that the change from the highly respected Susan Pascoe to Gary Johns was a good thing for the organisation. The government snuck out his appointment within hours of the same sex marriage vote passing. That was how proud they were of it - they wanted it to disappear in the news, and that's because he has this record of being a charity critic. And the review of the charities commission said specifically that it didn't think the charity commissioner needed to get more power. The accumulation of power has been something that he's focused on himself, trying to build up a power base, and now seeking powers which don't exist for comparable organisations that regulate corporations.
SHIRLEY: Can we go to the legislation and the powers it might give the commissioner and that issue. If we accept the commissioner is the overarching authority of charities in this country, should there be an argument for that person having the ultimate say on whether a charity should have that status and using their judgement to determine it?
LEIGH: Tim Costello has said this reminded him of Stalinist Russia. It’s a regime in which someone is punished because there's an anticipation that they will break the law, being punished for thoughtcrime rather than actually doing the wrong thing. Of course, if a charity breaks the law, if a charity promotes law breaking, then it should be deregistered - there's no debate about that. The question is whether Gary Johns, the most controversial person ever to hold this role, should have additional powers to deregister charities because he anticipates-
SHIRLEY: The question’s actually about any commissioner, now and into the future though, isn't it Andrew Leigh? I'm trying to get to whether the draft legislation in its wording for any person holding that role is problematic or not?
LEIGH: I would think it was a problem for any charity commissioner, Adam, but I think it's a particular issue for this charity commissioner. Gary Johns is extraordinarily controversial-
SHIRLEY: Again, these are subjective comments by you and you assessing his role as a person too. Should we not be looking at this as legislation that controls charities and whether it ultimately is a right or wrong change?
LEIGH: It’s not just me, Adam. You’d basically need to pull in anyone who has been working on charities issues and ask them quietly what they think about the person running the charities commission, and you're very unlikely to get positive views there. But I would oppose this even if the charities commissioner was a highly respected figure such as Susan Pascoe, Johns’ predecessor. I just don't think it's right for organisations to be able to deregister bodies based on what they think they will do, rather than what they've actually done. It's a simple principle of organisational management, indeed a good principle of parenting - you know, we wouldn't punish our kids based on what we anticipated they'd done. We judge people on their behaviour. We wouldn't penalise employees based on what we thought they'd do. We'd look to see what they actually did.
SHIRLEY: Andrew Leigh is the federal Member for Fenner, he's the Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury. Adam Shirley with you on ABC Radio Canberra, and it's good to have your company at 16 minutes to 10. A couple of issues directly in front of you as well to talk about in a moment, Andrew Leigh, but what is the process for this draft legislation being considered and whether it will be approved or not?
LEIGH: It'll need to come to the parliament, and I think we'll be working with the crossbenchers there. The crossbenchers were strongly opposed to shutting down the charities commission when the government tried to pursue that a couple of years ago. I hope they'll come on side here. The charity sector has had to write two joint letters to the prime minister in recent years, complaining about the government's ongoing war on charities. We’ve had incidents such as the ban on foreign political donations where the government tried to then crack down on charitable advocacy. That illustrates that this has really been a government that has seen charities as being enemies of theirs rather than collaborators in the great democratic conversation.
SHIRLEY: Andrew Leigh, you would have seen this morning reports that a third woman has alleged she was sexually assaulted by the same former federal government adviser accused of raping former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins. Do you expect there to be more, and how broad is this problem?
LEIGH: It’s just horrible, isn’t it, Adam? We’re just seeing more and more of these revelations coming out, and I think it does illustrate the need for much better handling of these kinds of complaints within parliament. You look to Britain, which now has a complaints mechanism that sits entirely separate from members of parliament and doesn't operate through the party structures, which I think is one of the real issues here-
SHIRLEY: Would you want to see that sort of system across parties here and across parliament?
LEIGH: Well, there’ll be an independent inquiry, but I'd be surprised if that's not where it landed. This is an odd workplace in which, in some sense, people are making complaints to those who have the power to decide their futures. And often not just their futures within this building, but if they want to work within the broader political movement, then their futures outside. So having a complaints procedure that looks much more like the kind of complaints procedure that other large organisations have makes a lot of sense to me. Depoliticising it, so you're effectively able to have people's complaints judged on their merits, which just clearly hasn't happened in many of these cases in the past.
SHIRLEY: We've also talked today about leadership and the campaign for the COVID-19 vaccination, and how positive and trustworthy that campaign needs to be. In the scheme of those, well, those measures by the government amongst others, when are you planning to get the vaccine?
LEIGH: I'll get it whenever it's given to me, and if there's a desire for members of parliament to have it in order to quell community concerns, I'd be happy to step up to that. But I certainly wouldn't be looking to jump the queue. I'm a middle-aged healthy bloke, and so I should appropriately get it at the right time. But I would urge your listeners to take it up. There's been a lot of misinformation around this and it's really important that we recognise that getting a vaccine isn't just something you do for you, it's something you do for your whole community. Just as getting the flu vaccine helps protect your friends, neighbours and family, so too getting the COVID vaccine will help all of us returned to health and help the economy get going again.
SHIRLEY: Some important decisions and issues to keep in mind today. Andrew Leigh, I appreciate your time on Mornings.
LEIGH: Thanks as always, Adam.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.