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Declare Victory, and Move On

8 October 2010 at 4:40 pm
Staff Reporter
OPINION | The Australian Government's decision to create an Office for the Non-Profit Sector is a step forward. But it's work must be underpinned by a clear vision of the sector's potential role in Australian society, according to Pro Bono Australia co-publisher David James.

Staff Reporter | 8 October 2010 at 4:40 pm


Declare Victory, and Move On
8 October 2010 at 4:40 pm

The Australian Government's decision to create an Office for the Non-Profit Sector is a step forward. But it's work must be underpinned by a clear vision of the sector's potential role in Australian society, according to Pro Bono Australia co-publisher David James.

“Victory has a thousand fathers”, John F. Kennedy suggested, in sixties sexist terms. Going on the Gillard Government’s decision yesterday to implement the reform commitments made by the Labor Party during the election, Kennedy was right: this is a victory for the sector and, indeed, it has a thousand parents.

How far to go back? Infamously, the community/voluntary/third/not-for-profit/non-profit/voluntary/social sector has been subject to as many reviews in the last 15 years as it has names. The most recent was Robert Fitzgerald’s Productivity Commission report, ‘The Contribution of the Not for Profit Sector’, published in February this year.

Apart from providing some much needed metrics on the size of the sector (600,000 organisations!; 8% of work force!; twice the economic significance of the agriculture industry!), Fitzgerald proffered a suite of commonsense recommendations for improving the regulation and functioning of the sector. The headlines were: establish an Office for the Not for Profit Sector within Prime Minister and Cabinet, and create a one-stop shop regulator to replace the current Kafkaesque quagmire organisations have to navigate, especially when seeking tax deductibility.

So, the Commission Report is a parent to the Government's decision, as are the thousands of people and organisations who made submissions to it, and as are the Ministers who commissioned the report (including a certain Deputy PM, one Julia Gillard). Then there are the people who lobbied those ministers. And so on….

Speaking Up

Another parent is the readers of Pro Bono Australia. Very seldom can one track a chain of cause and effect in the advocacy business, but this is one of those times.

During the election, 1,500+ readers completed our survey on the Productivity Commission recommendations, which we conducted together with the Centre for Social Impact. We published the results in the form of a Manifesto: Towards a Thriving NFP Sector, and started knocking on the doors of Labor, the Coalition and the Greens. Both Labor and the Greens responded positively, with specific election commitments. We at Pro Bono have been told – informally but with certainty – that the Manifesto was instrumental in getting the reform commitment up in the hurly burly of an election.

And then Labor, with the Greens, ended up – eventually – forming Government.

What will happen next, we wondered? Which Minister would carry responsibility for the commitment? The Cabinet that was announced, and the Cabinet that was sworn in (10 changes in titles later), was more confusing than anything. While the Coalition created a Minister for the Voluntary Sector (Senator Mitch Fifield), there was no equivalent in Government. Would the commitment be forgotten, fall off the agenda of a Government busy with negotiating the ‘new paradigm?’

So, over the last week, we contacted the offices of the five Ministers whose portfolios relate to the social/community sector and asked. We were gratified by the response: our question was taken seriously, and we were promised a quick reply. It came in yesterday: yes: the Government would honour its commitments; Tanya Plibersek, Minister for Social Inclusion, would have Ministerial responsibility; and, work would begin immediately.

We, with our readers, can lay claim to having instrumentally influenced, not the content, but the timing: to ensuring that action will be taken, now. Good stuff. Declare a victory.

Moving On

But what will actually be done?

To start with what may seem to be a trivial matter – though anyone into semiotics would disagree – there is the ‘name-thing’. The Government will establish what it is calling an ‘Office for the Non-Profit Sector’.

However, ‘non-profit’ and ‘not-for-profit’ do not mean the same thing. The phrase, 'non-profit', connotes ‘no benefit’; as in the Biblical question: “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?"

Robert Fitzgerald, the Productivity Commissioner, used ‘Not for Profit’ in his report, which we at Pro Bono have also tended to favour. We asked our readers about the name-thing in the survey: there was equal support for Not for Profit Sector and Community Sector (38% each), and very limited support for 'third sector’ or ‘voluntary sector’ (Senator Fifield may wish to take note). Moreover, on Google in Australia, the phrase ‘not for profit’ is searched for about ten times more often than ‘non profit’.

My personal preference is for ‘social sector’, since we form the social economy, and produce social outcome through achieving social impacts. But this got less than 5% support from our readers.

It is suggested that the name-thing be considered further, specifically by the ‘Non-Profit Sector Reform Council’ which Plibersek has committed to establishing by the end of the year to advise the Government on the reform agenda.

The Reform Council will be made up of representatives from the sector. This speaks to the fact that the sector has not succeeded in setting up a genuine, well supported, peak body. ACOSS has a legacy role in this area, but its primary mandate is to represent the poor rather than service providers. The Round Table initiated by the Howard Government has had fits and starts. The Community Council of Australia is somewhat embryonic. The Reform Council should take care, over the longer term, to avoid impeding the development of a robust, powerful, peak body for the sector.

More substantively is the reform agenda itself. In addition to fixing Government-sector arrangements and the creation of a one-stop-regulatory shop, the Productivity Commission recommendations address knowledge building, tax concessions, vetting systems, financing (both through promoting philanthropy and use of debt finance), wage justice, support for volunteering and innovation, rationalised service agreements, and more. The strong hope is that the Reform Council takes the whole of the Report’s recommendations as its mandate.

Within that, our readers strongly urged Government to take a collaborative approach, rather than be impositionist. For example, 71% of our readers supported a one-stop regulatory shop, subject to there being an appropriate balance between government and self-regulation (a co-regulation approach). Interestingly, almost 20% favoured government-only regulation and less than 5% supported only self-regulation.

In the same vein, 70% supported a national online resource that presents data and information about organisations and the sector as a whole, as long as this was led by the sector itself; only 17% supported this function being located within Government.

This emphasis on a collaborative approach was consistent across the all the survey responses. The fact that the Government has given immediate priority to establishing a Reform Council at the very outset is thus encouraging and, we can hope and expect, the Reform Council itself will be consultative and collaborative in its approach.

The City of our Final Destination

The fact that the Australian Government will have an Office for the Hard to Name Sector, one that actively works towards strengthening that sector is a positive. Every now and then we should pause, savour the achievement of a milestone, and enjoy.

Then its back to work. The reform agenda must not become yet another round of talking, yet another set of scoping studies and reviews. Its vision must be much more than just a bureaucratic tidy-up, though that is much needed. The reform agenda must embrace the full mandate established in the Productivity Commission report and drive towards a clear and bold vision for the future of the sector in Australia.


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