SPEECH TO AUSTRALIAN SERVICES UNION MEMBERS
TUESDAY, 15 MARCH 2022
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Australia has changed markedly in the last generation.
If you go back to the mid-1980s, the average Australian had twice as many close friends and knew twice as many of their neighbours. Compared to then, we've seen a drop in the level of volunteering. We’ve seen a decline in the number of community organisations in Australia. We’ve seen a fall in membership of those mass organisations. We've seen a drop in church attendance, union membership and membership of sporting clubs.
In short, Australia has become disconnected.
Just as we've seen a rise in inequality and growing gap between rich and poor, so too the past generation has seen a decline in the engagement of Australians, one with another. To put it simply, we've become less a country of ‘we’ and more a country of ‘me’.
Now I don’t hold the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison Government solely responsible for that, but I do hold them responsible for so much of what they've done since they came to office. If they’d had their way, then the Australian Charities and Not for Profit Commission – a body recommended by a dozen inquiries, which called for a one stop shop for charities - would have been abolished. The only reason that the ACNC wasn't abolished on Tony Abbott winning office was that they couldn't get it through the Senate. They introduced an abolition bill to the House of Representatives, but strong advocacy from Labor, crossbenchers and the community sector meant they couldn't kill off the charities commission.
But they began to undo a lot of the work we'd put in place through the Rudd and Gillard Governments. Not only had we built the charities commission, but we'd also passed amendments ensuring that there wouldn't be gag clauses in federal contracts. Immediately on winning office, Tony Abbott set about putting gag clauses back into agreements with community legal centres. When he was immigration minister, Scott Morrison cut funding to the Refugee Council of Australia, on the basis that he didn't think advocacy was something that the government should have been funding. We've seen attacks on charitable advocacy among environmental sector and anti-poverty charities as well. This is coming from a government that takes the approach that charities and not for profits should be seen and not heard, that they have no business interfering in the hard work of public policy, which should just be left to those in government.
And it's that approach which led them to pick the current head of the Australian Charity and Not for Profit Commission. Gary Johns is somebody who made his name as the charities critic. He talked about there being a good deal of what he calls ‘impure altruism’ in among charities. He’s called Indigenous women ‘cash cows’. He’s criticised BeyondBlue and Recognise. And it's telling that the government chose the hours after the same sex marriage vote had passed the parliament to announce that they were appointing Gary Johns as head of the charities commission, succeeding the well-respected Susan Pascoe, who headed the charities commission since its inception.
Under Gary Johns, we've sent an increasing centralization of power in the charities commission and increasing attacks on charitable advocacy. Over the course of nearly nine years of Coalition government we've seen three open letters from charities to successive Liberal prime ministers, calling on them to stop their attacks on the charitable sector.
There is a war on charities going on, and you've been on the frontlines of that war. But it's coming at the worst time. This is a moment where there are many challenges for Australia to face. We have climate change, and its clear manifestation in extreme weather events. We’ve got growing inequality and job insecurity, and we need to respond to that. We’ve got huge crises in the age care and disability care sector, where we need you to step up and we need government alongside that.
And there is a clear historical track record that shows that advocacy really matters. You look back to those extraordinary figures in history, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Now all sides of politics would like to claim them, but when my conservative friends want to claim them, I'd like them to also accept that these were two great unionists who were out there supporting the rights of workers, who understood that public advocacy was absolutely critical.
And it's in that very same spirit that we need to ensure that social change is pushed by the community sector. You only need to look at the Every Australian Counts campaign, that helped build community support to coalesce around the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Or the Yes! campaign for marriage equality, which brought together an extraordinary range of views and transformed public opinion, from majority opposing same sex marriage to a vast majority supporting it.
Those sorts of campaigns to me are quintessentially the work of the charity and not for profit sector, and I see no reason why they shouldn't be strongly supported.
So as part of the announcement that we're making today, we're saying very clearly that gag clauses should no longer be a feature of the Australian landscape. That builds on what we did in government, and it means that we will go through and look where possible at those agreements, and ensure that gag clauses do not exist where possible and are certainly never enforced under a Labor Government.
We value your voices. We love them when you’re speaking out in agreement with us, but we respect them when you're speaking out in disagreement. You only need to look at Labor’s last term in government to give you oodles of examples in which people in the charity and not for profit sector were criticising the government. That's a good thing. That's a healthy democracy. That strengthens our democracy, and gag clauses are the very anathema to that.
We also want to make sure that advocacy has is a public purpose. We're looking at options around a Not for Profit Freedom to Advocate Act, around ways in which the Australian Charities and Not for Profits Commission engages with the charitable sector, about the work that the public service does and their recognition of the importance of public advocacy.
It’s a range of levels we've got to work through, but there's a clear principle that underlies, and that principle is that we want your voices to be heard in the public square. We think you have a right to be there, and want to hear more from you in those important public debates.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.