SENATE REPORT UNANIMOUSLY REJECTS COALITION’S ATTACK ON CHARITIES
The Morrison Government’s latest attack on charities has been dealt a crippling blow by a unanimous report from the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Delegated Legislation, which has recommended that the Senate disallow a proposed regulation that would hurt the charity sector.
The Morrison Government wants to give charity commissioner Gary Johns – a man who has attacked Beyond Blue and Recognise, and who once described Indigenous women as ‘cash cows’ – the power to deregister charities because he anticipates they will commit a summary offence. As the Senate Committee points out, this unprecedented power gives the charities commissioner too much discretion, and leaves charities no certainty about how they can operate.
This report shows how extreme and out-of-touch the Morrison Government is on issues that affect charities. The Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Delegated Legislation works on a bipartisan basis. The Committee is chaired by Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, and its deputy chair is Senator Kim Carr. It is to the credit of these two senior and respected parliamentarians that they have recognised the threat to democracy of the Morrison Government’s latest proposal.
The report validates concerns that have been registered urgently and almost unanimously by charities across the ideological spectrum.
Australian charities and their supporters have made it clear to Minister Sukkar what’s at stake for them if these changes progress. Minister Sukkar should withdraw the regulations.
The charity sector has long been concerned about the Morrison Government’s attempt to muzzle them. Reverend Tim Costello has compared the latest crackdown to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Charities that have spoken out against this change include Amnesty International, Anglicare Australia, the Australian Centre for International Justice, the Australian Council of Social Service, Communities Council of Australia, Community Legal Centres Australia, Country Needs People, Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, Foundation for Young Australians, the Fred Hollows Foundation, Friends of the Earth, Oxfam, Public Health Association, Public Interest Advocacy Centre, RESULTS International Australia, the Queensland Conservation Council, Save the Children, Tearfund, and the Wide Bay Burnett Environment Council.
As a statement from St Vincent de Paul Society, Catholic Social Services Australia, Anglicare, UnitingCare Australia and others noted, ‘As charities, we take our responsibilities to the public very seriously and we want to be accountable to our communities and supporters. We have supported the role of the ACNC in ensuring that public confidence in the charity sector is maintained. However, we already face appropriate penalties for pursuing unlawful purposes and breaking the law. All these proposed regulations would do, is single out charities for disproportionate penalties following minor breaches of a kind that are unparalleled for any other group, including political parties and businesses.’
Alice Drury, of the Human Rights Law Centre, says ‘These rules would silence charities at a time when their advocacy is more crucial than ever, as charities support Australian communities through unprecedented crises like catastrophic bushfires and the pandemic. … These proposed laws are a case of extreme overreach, and have no place in a democracy.’
The Australian Institute of Company Directors, representing 40,000 directors, has said of these changes ‘… the AICD does not does consider it appropriate that the ACNC Commissioner has the discretion to remove charities from the register in the circumstances proposed. Given the severe consequences that removal from the ACNC register can have on a charity (including losing income tax concessions), such a power is only appropriate if it is proportionate to the misconduct and subject to procedural fairness such as rights of appeal.’
David Crosbie, the CEO of the Community Council for Australia, says: ‘Any suggestion that the ACNC commissioner can act against a charity because he or she believes they may do something wrong—even when there is no evidence they have done something wrong—seems at best to be against every principle of justice, fairness and procedural transparency, all of which should be fundamental values for any regulator.
Paul Wright, the National Director of ANTaR says: ‘In the middle of a government initiated process to determine a First Nations Voice, these proposed regulatory changes would take away the few organisational voices that already try to speak for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In a healthy democracy, governments must be subject to robust scrutiny and the advocacy of the citizens and communities they are elected to serve, these changes undermine democracy.’
Priscilla Atkins, Chair of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services says: ‘Our legal services across the country and the thousands of people they represent and advocate for must not be silenced. ... This nation and its leaders still perpetuate so many injustices against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and it is our right to speak out against them. It is our duty to advocate for the changes that will create a fairer, freer and more equitable Australia.”
Marc Purcell, the CEO of the Australian Council for International Development, points out: ‘At a time when we've got military juntas shutting down civil society in Myanmar, Thailand and China … Australia needs to be supporting diverse opinions, the right of free speech, citizens' right to protest and certainly not muzzling charitable organisations.’
Toby O’Connor, the CEO of St Vincent de Paul, said: 'The Catholic Church people, generally around Easter, have a parade or walk in support of refugees, and in the new proposal, if some of our people were blocking a public area, if they failed to move on under a direction, then any charity that's associated with that march could be disqualified from being a charity.'
Joe Zabar, the former deputy CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia, says: ‘The Church's traditional Palm Sunday Refugee Rally may trigger action against any Catholic charity that promotes or participates in the rally. While it may not be the intention of the government to include such events, the reality is that the framing of the proposed regulatory changes may capture Catholic charities simply exercising their rights to assemble and advocate for causes which matter to them.’
The past eight years have seen the Liberals wage a war on charities, prompting no less than three open letters to the Prime Minister from the sector. The Morrison Government should listen to this unanimous, bipartisan report from a respected Senate Committee, and withdraw its anti-democratic attack on Australia’s charities.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.