A Charitable View of the First 100 Days of Government?
17 December 2013 at 11:08 am
A new government riding a wrecking ball, over-powered by pre-election rhetoric, may result in some very good charity policy being buried in the debris, writes the CEO of the Community Council for Australia, David Crosbie in his assessment of the first 100 days of the Abbott Government.
I have this unfortunate image in my mind of government ministers sitting astride large grey wrecking balls as they swing into buildings showering debris across the bystanders.
New governments are often focused on demolishing the edifices established by previous governments. They have, after-all, been opposing things for years.
There are clearly a number of previous government policies and practices that could do with review, reform and in some cases demolition. In part this is what the election result indicates.
The danger is that a new government can drift into ideological payback – swinging the demolition ball so enthusiastically that it creates significant collateral damage.
In some ways, the charity sector has benefitted, but also been caught in the fallout. While the sector tries to fill in the outline of what’s to replace the structures marked for demolition, in some areas uncertainty has undermined confidence and future planning.
This sense of uncertainty is compounded by the cuts already being made or likely to be made to reign in government expenditure.
For a long time the Not for Profit sector has been seen as the third sector, less important than government and business. Its views have rarely counted despite having a massive economic and social footprint: employing over one million Australians, turning over more than $1 billion annually, contributing almost 5% of GDP, and holding communities together during good times and bad.
Two weeks ago, the government decided to delay the new definition of charity which was due to be implemented from January 1, 2014. At the Senate Inquiry last week no-one could answer the question: why? The new definition of charity was passed through Parliament almost six months ago.
The final legislation was a consequence of extensive expert and sector consultation, was a key recommendation of the Productivity Commission, and has been on the government agenda since John Howard first called for a much needed overhaul of charity laws back in September 2000. The sector has strongly endorsed the new definition and for good reason.
The existing common law rulings date back to 1601 and cause considerable confusion to anyone seeking to navigate what is or is not charitable. It is especially difficult for under-resourced community organisations with limited access to legal expertise.
The new laws not only offer clarity, but also modernize the definition of charity to cover vital areas such as advocacy, Indigenous affairs, housing and disaster relief. Thankfully the Senate did not support the government’s bill with both the ALP and the Greens opposing the proposed delay.
The new definition of charity will survive, but the government’s actions in seeking to delay the implementation until a new Senate was in place have raised significant concerns within the sector.
Organisations are concerned that this might be about government unease with provision of charitable status to advocacy based groups?
The government has also displayed a myopic determination to dismantle the highly regarded Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission (ACNC) and replace it with an unknown bureaucratic equivalent to be housed in a government department somewhere else.
The vast majority of charities and Not for Profit sector (over 80 per cent according to Pro Bono Australia’s surveys pre-election survey) have supported the ACNC providing both a national register of charities and the determination of charitable status.
The Productivity Commission and more than ten inquiries have also supported the ACNC model. The achievements of the ACNC over the first 12 months are very impressive by any measure, but especially when you consider it costs less than $14 million a year to run, and it replaces many government officials who previously performed similar functions less effectively and efficiently.
Why would you demolish this regulator and return to the bad old days of the ATO acting as both a collector of government revenue and a regulator of charities? Not even the ATO wants that to happen.
The proposed new government created and funded “Centre of Excellence’ within the social services bureaucracy seems contrary to the policy goal of encouraging sector leadership.
These two major negatives have in part been offset by the Assistant Treasurer’s announcement on the weekend that the new government will not introduce the Better Targeting of Tax Concessions legislation. The previous government proposed legislation in this area that would have brought into question all the income-producing activities of Not for Profit organisations in an unnecessary and counter-productive campaign against inappropriate use of charitable status.
On balance, there is much to welcome and applaud about the new government’s agenda for the Not for Profit sector. There is much we would like to work with the government to achieve.
The Commission of Audit and the proposed Community Business Council are two other initiatives the sector has strongly endorsed. A sector led Centre of Excellence drawing on our existing research and advocacy base would also be welcome, but not as a bureaucratic exercise.
Real savings and increased effectiveness can be generated if governments choose to work effectively with the Not for Profit sector and if communities become more involved.
One hundred days into the new government, the messages the sector is receiving are mixed. While there have been some positives, the new government remains determined to close down some of what is working and delay some of what is needed, regardless of what the sector says.
Many in the sector remain hopeful that by working with government, we can together begin to achieve real and improved outcomes for our sector and communities, but continuing to ignore sector views on key issues like charitable status and the ACNC undermines the more positive aspects of the government’s civil society agenda.
There is so much to gain, but also much to lose for a charity sector struggling to adapt to changing economic times.
The concern remains that a new government riding a wrecking ball over-powered by pre-election rhetoric may result in some very good charity policy being buried in the debris.