Reconnecting Australia - Speech, Melbourne






Over the course of the last two generations, Australia has become more disconnected. We've seen a decline in the share of Australians who give money to charities. We've seen a fall off in the share of Australians who volunteer their time. There are now fewer associations per person than they were in the late 1970s, and our big mass membership organisations - whether they be Scouts, Guides, Rotary Lions, or indeed political parties - have shed members of an alarming rate. We've surveyed the number of close friends Australians had in the 1980s and done so again more recently, and those surveys show that Australians have half as many close friends as they did a generation ago. The same is true of neighbours. Australians know about half as many of their neighbours as they did in the mid-1980s - ironically, when Neighbours itself first hit the screens.

We've seen in Australia a significant decline in many of these measures of community health. The share of Australians who attend to religious service on a regular basis used to be half at the end of World War Two, and has now fallen down to about a seventh. The share of Australians who are members of a union was half in the early 1980s, and has now declined to about a seventh.

When I was given the role of Shadow Minister for Charities in 2013, when Labor went into opposition, I set about learning not only about the problems, but also about the solutions. We held nearly twenty ‘Reconnected Forums’ right across the country, everywhere from Hobart to Darwin, from Perth to Newcastle. And at those forums, we drew together charity and not for profit leaders to discuss what was working, what were the strategies of charities that were bucking the trend, and we identified a range of organisations that were managing to grow. Nick Terrell and I drew these together in a book called Reconnected, capturing the health of community groups that have done things differently. We discussed ‘DoublePlusGood Social Capital’ – organisations offering ways of allowing people to tick two boxes. Like Hunter Intrepid Landcare doing kayaking water clean-ups, allowing people to get fit and look after their natural environment at the same, or Greening Australia's singles tree planting events, allowing people to improve forestation and potentially meet the love of their lives.

We created what we called Sutton's law of social capital, after Willie Sutton, who famously said that he robbed banks because that was where the money was. To us, Sutton's law of social capital is that if you want to build community, you need to go where the need is greatest. Not in our most affluent communities, but in our most disadvantaged. We identified organisations that were working to provide volunteering opportunities to build up the work experience of new migrants in Blacktown, organisations that were reaching out to people with disabilities and connecting them with the local community. We found a plethora of Australian organisations that were using technology intentionally. We call this CyberConnecting, the idea that while our devices can act to distract us and take us away from face to face interaction, there's also a whole lot that can be done that is effectively connecting people up through technology. During the COVID pandemic, we had the Kindness Pandemic Facebook page put together by Catherine Barrett, which showcased many of the ways in which Australians were looking after their friends and neighbours, and acted as a platform for people who needed support, such as for expectant mothers whose birthing classes have been cancelled but who were then able to link up with assistance online.

There's a huge amount of fresh ideas and vibrant activity in the community sector. I wouldn't have wanted to be in opposition for nine years, but one advantage of being in opposition for nine years is that you really get to understand the sector. You get to know great people like David Crosbie and the work that can be done if we were to have a government that works with charities rather than against them. But sadly, that hasn't been what we've seen over the past nine years.

When the Liberals came to office in 2013, they did so with a pledge to get rid of the Australian Charities and Not for Profits Commission, the one-stop-shop for charities whose creation had been recommended by more than a dozen inquiries. And when they couldn't get rid of the charities commission, they replaced its CEO, a well-respected charities advocate in Susan Pascoe with the current charities commission head, who has made his name as a critic of charities. I have to ask you this: if you're proud of a decision that you're making, do you announce it in the couple of hours following the marriage equality vote? I'm guessing not. But that was when the government chose to announce the appointment of Gary Johns, somebody who had described Indigenous women as ‘cash cows’, and who had criticised respected charities like BeyondBlue and Recognise.

And we've seen under the coalition continued attacks on charitable advocacy. Attacks on the rights of environmental charities to speak out over issues like climate change and deforestation. Attacks on anti-poverty charities who want to speak out about inequality and social disadvantage. We've seen attacks on charities working in the legal aid sector, as though those who are assisting people in legal aid centres aren't among the best informed about how to improve our laws so they work for all Australians. Those attacks on charitable advocacy have been so serious that we've seen an open letter from charities including Anglicare, UnitingCare and Fred Hollows to the United Nations, asking the United Nations to intervene against a Liberal government that was undermining charitable advocacy.

We've seen three open letters to successive Liberal prime ministers from large Australian charities criticising the way in which the government has handled its relationship with the charitable sector. I think part of the problem is that the person who's had portfolio responsibility for charities over the last nine years under the Liberals has never really wanted it. In this period, as I said, I've been the sole spokesperson for the Labor Party on charities. But since 2013, the coalition charities ministers have been Kevin Andrews, Scott Morrison, Christian Porter, Michael McCormack, Michael Sukkar, Zed Seselja and Michael Sukkar again - seven ministers if you count Michael Sukkar twice, six if you count him once. The only thing that that unites them is that none of them really wanted the job. I really do. I'm passionate about your sector. I think Australian charities and not for profits are extraordinary. They're a big share of the economy. As the survey that has come out today has shown, 8.5 per cent of GDP, 11 per cent of employment. But they're also a crucial part of what we want to be as a society.

Unfortunately, the coalition couldn't even send along a representative to today's debate. I know Janet and I would have enjoyed the chance to at least exchange ideas with that representative, but they haven't sent someone along. And yet, they've been using charitable organisations for so-called ‘endorsements’ in their flyers. Not all of these endorsements have been with permission. So the last month has seen a range of Liberal MPs forced to withdraw so-called endorsements from Australian charities. We’ve seen Paul Fletcher forced to withdraw a supposed an endorsement from the PCYC. We've seen Josh Frydenberg having to withdraw a so called endorsement from Guide Dogs Victoria. And we've seen Trevor Evans in Brisbane hit the trifecta, having to withdraw endorsements from the Pyjama Foundation, Gingercloud Foundation and Arts Access. Now I'm not criticising those charities. What I am criticising is a set of Liberal MPs who want to put charities on their election flyers, but don't want charities to speak out in the public debate. They want to muzzle charities throughout their term in office, and yet when it comes to polling day, they want to associate themselves with the charity sector. And that's because they recognise Australia's charities are far more respected than Liberal members of parliament. It's sad, really, that we've got this this degree of hypocrisy from a government which says that they want charitable endorsements, but don't want the voices of charities enriching the Australian public debate.

If Labor is fortunate enough to be elected on the 21st of May, we've got a big and positive agenda to work with Australian charities. First of all, we just want to end the war on charities. You can promise that somebody is written a book called Reconnected, who's had the portfolio for nine years, who loves charities and loves working with them, would be able to do just that. I'd be really keen to continue working and engaging with the sector, and I wouldn't see them as combatants, even when charities are speaking out criticising the government of the day. It is absolutely vital that we recognise that charitable advocacy is valuable, when charities are saying things that accord with us and when they're saying things that don't accord with us. So we'd restore the freedom to advocate and we get rid of the gag clauses in social service agreements - that terrible Faustian bargain, which requires charities to stop speaking out on condition of getting government contracts.

We’d ensure that funding flows to a greater diversity of charities and not for profits, making sure that services are delivered by those who have the local knowledge and the understanding in the community. We’d extend the contract terms. My colleague Senator Jenny McAllister makes the point that these one year contracts that so many organisations suffer under are a form of lazy performance management, from a government that doesn't want to manage a contract, but simply wants to be able to say ‘we won't renew your term’. A far more sophisticated approach and one that is better for charities, their staff and our community as a whole, is to ensure that you have longer contract terms and that you manage the relationships for that term.

We’ve announced that we would aim to double Australian philanthropy by 2030. It's an ambitious goal, but we believe it's achievable and one that if we got there would put charitable giving in Australia on par with New Zealand. We do that through Treasury-led process, recognising the economic value of greater philanthropy in Australia. There's a number of ways in which we might achieve that goal, but one is to think about public awareness campaigns. Just as the Slip Slop Slap campaign transformed attitudes to skin cancer or the Grim Reaper campaign raised awareness of HIV and AIDS, so too a public awareness campaign on giving could turn philanthropy not just from an elite activity, but into a mass participation sport.

We would fix fundraising, those outdated mishmash of laws that see charities who want to raise money online having to register through seven different states and territories. A bipartisan report chaired by Catryna Bilyk in 2018 set a two-year timeline to fix fundraising. That was four years ago, and it still hasn't been done. We'd get it done.

We'd set up a Not for Profit Expert Reference Panel guiding the Assistant Minister on what we need to do in order to strengthen the health of charities, and an ongoing ‘Building Community - Building Capacity’ working group, which would recognise the importance of the sector's productivity. Just a 1 per cent increase in the productivity of the charity and non for profit sector delivers $1.4 billion of economic value back into the community. We want to work with the charitable sector to ensure that there's less unnecessary regulation and more collaboration, both with government and across charities.

Your survey today says that 90 per cent of Australians are involved with a charity, which really does speak to the remarkable health, vibrancy of the sector, and also the way in which it engages with the Australian community. And so in closing, thank you very much for coming along today. I have always enjoyed these conferences. I enjoyed the conversation at the 2019 election, albeit that we also didn't have a Liberal representative here at that time either. But I really feel as though I would like to be addressing you next time without the word ‘shadow’ in front of my title. I've learned a great deal from working with Australia's charities and not for profits, and I hope to continue to work, learn and collaborate on building a reconnected Australia if we're fortunate enough to form government after the 21st of May. Thanks very much.


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.

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