THE WAR ON CHARITIES CONTINUES
HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
WEDNESDAY, 26 MAY 2021
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The Treasury Laws Amendment (2021 Measures No. 3) Bill 2021 does a couple of things. It includes a housing measure for sole parents. It is a measure which has been much touted by the government, but its impact is much smaller than their claims would have you believe. It adjusts Medicare levy low-income thresholds, which is something that happens on an annual basis, so there's nothing to write home about there. It changes the tax arrangements for disaster recovery grant payments in such a way as to make them tax free. And it adds a number of charities to the specific listings for deductible gift recipients. Among them is the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas, a really important institute which is broadening the quantity of high-quality journalism available and collaborating with a range of media organisations in order to provide better international and regional coverage, and more investigative journalism. The work that the Judith Nielson Institute does is going to be increasingly important in the future as more pressure comes upon the media industry.
But, while these organisations are receiving specific listing, many other charities are hurting. We've just seen new data on volunteering from research work done by the Australian National University's Nick Biddle which reveals that the volunteering rate in Australia may now have fallen as low as 24 per cent. That's the share of Australian adults volunteering in the previous 12 months. That's off the back of Australian Bureau of Statistics surveys which showed that, over the period from 2010 to 2019, the volunteering rate fell from 36 per cent to 29 per cent. So if this Australian National University survey is accurate—if we can match it up against the Australian Bureau of Statistics surveys—it suggests a whopping 12 percentage point fall in the volunteering rate in Australia in just 11 years. That suggests that a third of Australia's volunteer workforce has dropped out over that period. That's a massive hit to the many charities that rely on assistance of volunteers.
Many charities are also struggling with donations. In-person fundraising drives weren't possible during the pandemic. Events such as charity balls had to be cancelled. While some foundations have opened their wallets and given more generously during the pandemic than they would have in a normal year, for some organisations that hasn't made up for the hit.
At the same time, the sector has a government that continues to wage a war on charities. The coalition parties for five years fought against the creation of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission—a one-stop shop for charities which was supported by a dozen reports before its creation but opposed by the coalition tooth and nail. They even brought into this parliament a bill which attempted to abolish the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, but, when they realised they couldn't get it through the Senate, they finally backed down.
What did they do instead? In the hours following the same-sex marriage vote passing, they appointed Gary Johns as head of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission. Gary Johns, who had attacked the charities Recognise and beyondblue, who had referred to Indigenous women as cash cows, who had written a book complaining about the extent of ‘impure altruism’, as he called it, within the charity sector, and who was best known not as a charities collaborator but as a charities critic.
We have now seen handed down the report of the mandated five-year review of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission legislation. That report was handed down in May 2018. Sadly, the government took nearly two years to respond, and it rejected 11 of the 30 recommendations. Among the recommendations it rejected were recommendations to provide more checks and balances on Dr Johns' powers. Such checks and balances would be appropriate given that he has restructured the organisation in such a way that it is much more hierarchical, with the commissioners working less as collaborators and with more of the organisation reporting directly to him.
We know that the government is now attempting to get through changes that would see charities deregistered by Dr Johns if he anticipates that they will commit a summary offence. Let's just go through that. A summary offence could include something like trespassing. So, if Dr Johns anticipates that a charity will encourage trespassing, he could deregister it, effectively destroying the organisation. This is a power that Labor would be reluctant to hand to any head of the charities commission, even the well-respected Susan Pascoe, the inaugural head of the organisation, but it's a power we should be particularly concerned about handing to Gary Johns.
We have seen the sector outraged by this. Right across the political spectrum, charities have spoken out about their concerns that handing this additional deregistration power to Gary Johns could well see them unable to participate in the advocacy arena. We have seen critiques from Tim Costello, who, in a terrific article by Mike Seccombe in the Saturday Paper, was quoted as comparing the changes to Putin's Russia. We've seen criticism from St Vincent de Paul, from Anglicare and from UnitingCare. Many religious charities have been concerned about the Government's new front in their war on charities. This is a sector which has had to write two open letters to successive Liberal prime ministers complaining about the attacks in the sector.
The fact is that the Liberals don't want charity voices in the public space. Labor sees the voices of charities as enriching the public debate, but the Coalition don't want people criticising them. They believe that social service charities should serve soup at soup kitchens but shouldn't talk about poverty. They believe that environmental charities should plant trees but shouldn't talk about climate change and deforestation. They believe that legal charities should assist needy people in court but shouldn't talk about Indigenous incarceration and the systemic factors that are driving that. What the Liberals miss is that the voices of charities bring a lived experience to public policy debates. Public policy debates are enriched through the voices of charities. That's why Labor has spoken out against gag clauses in social service agreements. It's why we were so concerned at the under-the-table attempts by the Liberals to muzzle foreign aid charities from talking about the fact that Australia's foreign aid levels have now fallen to the lowest level since records began.
Instead, the sector wants fundraising reform. The sector's top ask was for Commonwealth leadership to develop a harmonised fundraising system. That is because Australia's fundraising laws pre-date mobile phones. They pre-date the internet. They are based on a model of charities asking for money door-to-door or in the street. But, increasingly, Australians give to charities online. It makes no sense that charities should be required to register in seven different jurisdictions. Every state and territory except the Northern Territory requires separate registration in order to fundraise. The result of that is charities end up having to either take the risk of breaking a state or territory fundraising law or else they need to spend a week filling out that paperwork every year. That is a week of time that could be used to assist the vulnerable, a week of time that could be used to engage with donors and raise more funds.
A splendid report chaired by Senator Catryna Bilyk in 2019 handed down a bipartisan recommendation saying that the current outdated fundraising laws are costing charities $15 million annually -- or more than a million dollars a month -- and set a two-year time frame on the government to fix fundraising. But the Government failed to respond to that report for much of the time and have now missed the deadline. They are not willing to work with the sector on its number one ask. A government which talks about red tape reduction won't do red tape reduction for a sector that is being hamstrung by it.
The Government have come in here on their so-called red tape reduction days touting the changes in legislation, such as removing the hyphen from 'e-mail' or scrapping errant commas from legislation. But they won't help charities that need fundraising reform and that is why the charity sector is so disappointed by this Government. While this bill has specific listing for a handful of charities, there are thousands more Australian charities that are just saying to anyone who will listen that they need a government that is on their side. They need a government that is on the side of Australian charities, a government that is on the side of the people who are helped by Australian charities, a government that is on the side of those who speak out and add their voices to the public conversation.
Let's be clear. When Labor was last in government, not every contribution in the public debate by a charity and not-for-profit was in favour of the things that the Rudd and Gillard governments were doing. Frequently, when we were in office, Labor governments were criticised by charities, but Labor never responded to that by saying, 'Let's shut charities down. Let's muzzle charities. Let's attack environmental charities through measures such as the one the government is currently pursuing of extending the power of de-registration to cover anticipated summary offences.' Labor never did that because Labor believes in a strong and vibrant public debate. Labor believes that charities have a proud role to play, not only in assisting the community but also in improving the quality of the public debate. We need the government to back off its attacks on charities. There is plenty more that could be done in the sector. The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission should operate as a one-stop shop for charities, much as ASIC was set up as a one-stop shop for corporations. But while on the case of the standardisation of corporations law in 1990, the states and territories referred their power to the Commonwealth government, we didn't see that in the establishment of the ACNC. So as a result, there is a lot of duplicate reporting.
The ACNC could do a better job if it had a minister who was keen to work with states and territories to remove some of those duplicate reporting requirements by having things like a charity passport so charities were able to minimise the amount of time they spend on compliance issues and maximise the amount of time they spend assisting the most vulnerable.
This would be an important step forward.
We would also benefit from a government which would make a clear commitment to the Australian people that they valued the contribution that charities make, that they valued their role in the public debate. But instead we have in Minister Sukkar a minister who is following Minister Andrews's previous approach, seeing charities as being a threat and not recognising the value that charities can bring to the community.
Australia is facing a disconnection crisis. Over the course of the last generation, we've seen a drop in the share of Australians who are part of a social group, a community group, a political group. We've seen a decline in volunteering rates, a decline in churchgoing, a decline in union membership and a decline in participation in many of our most important groups. In order to turn around that crisis of civic disconnection, in order to turn Australia from a country of 'me' into a country of 'we', we need to be working with our charities and not-for-profits. Labor will do that. The coalition will continue to wage war on charities.