The Liberals' war on charities - Speech, House of Representatives





On Monday, Senator Louise Pratt, Labor colleagues and I met with dozens of charities concerned about the latest salvo in the Liberals’ war on charities. They included the Australian Council for International Development, CHOICE, Red Cross, Oxfam, CARE Australia, the Consumer Action Law Centre, Financial Counselling Australia, ACOSS, World Vision, RESULTS Australia and Pew Charitable Trusts. There is bipartisan support for banning foreign political donations. Indeed, it's been a year since the Leader of the Opposition introduced a private member's bill that would do just that. But banning donations to political parties should not entail cutting down free speech.

We have had an extraordinary array of opponents to the government's attempt to include charities in the scope of its draft laws. These laws have been opposed by GetUp! and the Institute of Public Affairs—probably the only time in Australia's history when GetUp! and the IPA have agreed on the same thing. Credit where it's due—they have achieved the impossible.

But it's not the first time they have brought together a range of people across the political spectrum. There have been two open letters to the Prime Minister complaining about attacks on charities. The most recent was signed by Volunteering Australia, Carers Australia, the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Community Council of Australia, Justice Connect, Philanthropy Australia and the Starlight Children's Foundation. Again, the Liberals bringing charities together—against them.

The fact is the latest bill conflates political campaigning and issue advocacy. Charities have told us about many concerns they have about how this might affect their operations. One charity told us about a program where they bring Indigenous leaders to Canberra, which might have to cease. Another talked about their anti-tuberculosis work, important not only in the Pacific but also in the Torres Strait, which may have to stop. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation currently funds parliamentarians on both sides to visit aid projects in developing countries. That might have to cease. Take the example of a New Zealand family whose child was helped by a local state based charity. They might be unable to give to that charity. Religious charities have said that the new laws might mean that, before passing around the collection plate on Sundays, they might have to a say, 'If you're a foreigner, don't put money in the plate.'

That's Malcolm Turnbull's new Australia—an Australia in which immigrants are excluded from putting money in the church collection plate. Consumer protection agencies have told us that they might have to cease their campaigning on product safety. And what international NGO would set up in a country with such draconian laws when it comes to dealing with foreign donations?

A survey by Pro Bono has found that two-thirds of Australian charities are finding it harder to be heard by the federal government than they were five years ago. When you look at how the Liberals have spent the last five years, it's not very surprising. We've had five ministers in five years responsible for the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission: Kevin Andrews, Scott Morrison, Christian Porter, Michael McCormack and Michael Sukkar. And we saw a period, from 2011 to 2016, in which the Liberals tried to close down the charities commission, a body supported by four out of five charities. The Liberals have put gag clauses in social services agreements, have attempted to shut down the ability of charities to advocate and are now trying to expand the ban on overseas donations to political parties to also cover charities. To paraphrase the great Malcolm Tucker, those on the other side of the House have a rap sheet longer than a Leonard Cohen song.

After a period in which Susan Pascoe, the well-respected head of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, had not been reappointed, the government decided to appoint well-known charities critic Gary Johns to head the commission. So proud they were of this decision that they announced it at the very same time at which this House was passing its historic vote on same-sex marriage. That's what you do when you're proud of an announcement. Appointing Gary Johns to head the charities commission is like putting Ned Kelly in charge of bank security; it's like putting Bronwyn Bishop in charge of transport for politicians. Let's go through some of the things on Gary Johns's track record. As he appointed Mr Johns, the minister admitted he hadn't read his work, so let's go through a few of the things Gary Johns has said.

Gary Johns has said, 'The Abbott government should deny charity status to the enemies of progress.' Who are the enemies of progress? Well, who's to know which charity is in the firing line. He believes in the scrapping of the Charities Act 2013, which would take charities law back to the 1600s. The head of the charities commission would like to see charities law returned to the Shakespearean era. I love Shakespeare, but I think we can do better than the Shakespearean era when it comes to our charities law. He said, 'There is a great deal of impure altruism in the charity business.' And he has gone after specific charities. How do mental health charities feel about the fact that the new charities commissioner has attacked beyondblue for their work with LBGTI people?

How would Indigenous charities feel about the fact that the charities commissioner has said:

Look, a lot of poor women in this country, a large proportion of whom are Aboriginal, are used as cash cows, right?

How would welfare charities feel about the fact that the charities commissioner said:

If a person’s sole source of income is the taxpayer, the person, as a condition of benefit, must have contraception. No contraception, no benefit.

How would Indigenous charities feel about the statement that the charities commissioner has made that:

… Recognise, is the officially sanctioned propaganda arm of the Australian Government.

How would multicultural charities feel about the fact that the charities commissioner has said:

Australia is sucking in too many of the wrong type of immigrant… There is no doubt many Australians have considerable misgivings about Muslim immigration and the ability of many to fit in.

How would environmental charities feel about the fact that the new charities commissioner has said:

… we know for a fact that renewable energy is a cause of the blackouts.

Labor has engaged with charities around the country, such as Welcome to Australia, whose founder, Brad Chilcott, characterised the Turnbull government's approach to charities by saying:

The message that charities should not be involved in advocacy is akin to saying 'you can plant a tree but you can't protect a forest'.

The advocacy voice of charities and not-for-profits is not only the voice of the various organisations—it is the voice of every Australian who donates, volunteers or is a member of a charity. When the voice of charities and not-for-profits are threatened, so is our democracy.

The approach that the Turnbull government takes towards charities is that they should be seen but not heard, that they can serve out soup in a soup kitchen but can't talk about the causes of poverty, that they can plant trees but can't talk about deforestation, that they can assist Indigenous people on the ground but they can't possibly talk about the root causes of Indigenous disadvantage. The government wants to put a velvet rope across the entry to the public square. They are hurting not only charities but also the very quality of Australian public debate, which demands a multiplicity of voices. Australian democracy isn't just about the voices of politicians; it's about the choices of charities who—let's be honest—enjoy far higher trust than traditional political parties. They have a right to be heard. Australians want them to be heard in the political conversation.

While the government is continuing its war on charities prompting open letters and protests from the sector, Labor is engaging with charities. Bill Shorten has created a portfolio of shadow minister for charities and not-for-profits. For the first time this important sector has been recognised by the Labor front bench. Labor is working with states and territories to encourage them to cooperate with the charities commission, so our voluntary sector spends less time doing paperwork and more time engaging with the vulnerable. Labor supports Justice Connect's campaign to fix fundraising, moving from a patchwork of state based laws to a uniform national scheme operating within the Australian Consumer Law and giving a week per year back to charities, who no longer have to waste it doing unnecessary paperwork. Labor has conducted nine Reconnected forums across Australia, bringing together more than a thousand charities to explore new approaches to boosting community engagement.

Wouldn't it be great if, the next time heads of charities came to Canberra, they were engaging with the government on constructive reform, not fighting yet another battle in the coalition's war on charities?


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  • Max Bourke
    commented 2018-02-09 16:12:21 +1100
    Good speech Andrew! Totally support. I remember when Gary Johns was a Labot Party staffer and he opted to accept charity from me by way of a bed!

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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.