EXCLUSIVE: Inside the ACNC
10 February 2015 at 10:18 am
The Liberals want to get rid of it, Labor wants to save it and the Not for Profit sector says that it needs it. Journalists Xavier Smerdon and Nadia Boyce go behind the scenes for an exclusive look inside the ACNC.
On the second level of a Docklands building, in inner Melbourne, the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission is sprawled across almost an entire floor, with people busily making phone calls and writing emails.
Susan Pascoe sits at her desk with a tea cup so large it would rival most soup bowls.
In her role as Commissioner, Pascoe has worked to establish Australia’s first charity regulator, an organisation that has never been far from the headlines.
She explains that a large amount of the work of the ACNC is divided between Assistant Commissioners David Locke and Murray Baird, who have the ability to deregister a charity.
“They have oversight over roughly half of the organisation and because they’re public servants, they can further delegate once they’ve had the authority delegated to them,” Pascoe said.
“For the critical decisions like registration decisions and compliance decisions, they take that on, but any appeal would come to me. That sort of keeps me in reserve and you can have fairly clean appeal processes if you want them.”
With just under 100 staff, the ACNC is tasked with regulating one of the largest and most complex sectors in Australia.
Pascoe said the work of the the ACNC could often be misunderstood by the sector it was serving.
She singled out its investigation process as one thing that most people in the sector would most likely not know much about.
“They probably don’t really understand how we go about the investigations that we do,” she said.
“We’ve had well over 1000 complaints and they can vary enormously. It could be someone complaining that people are door knocking for a charity and they don’t think that they really work for a charity. There could be a complaint that the CEO’s remuneration is so large that it constitutes a private benefit.
“If it looks like there is a significant case, it’s almost a triage system, then it moves to being an investigation.
“Once we go to an investigation we typically are working with other Government organisations, both intelligence and enforcement agencies.
“We work with AUSTRAC, the Federal Police, State and Federal enforcement agencies and so on.
“Our experience is when a matter is raised, overwhelmingly when the Board of the Charity realises the seriousness of the issue that’s being dealt with, will move quickly to try and rectify it.
“We’ve got some significant powers but we’ve used them sparingly because what we’ve found is that we’ve adopted the disposition that we’d rather work with them toward improvement and they’ve generally done the same.
“Of course we can’t be naive. There are examples where people are wilfully trying to deceive people.”
Before they were even elected, the Abbott Government vowed to abolish the ACNC and former Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews seemed to be getting ready to take the issue to the Senate.
His replacement, Scott Morrison, has since said that the issue is a low priority for his office, causing some in the sector to rejoice, but nonetheless maintaining a sense of uncertainty.
Pascoe said that the threats to remove the ACNC had caused some of the almost 100 strong staff to move on.
“It wouldn’t surprise you that with the level of uncertainty we’ve had a much higher than normal attrition rate. We had 23 per cent of staff move on last year. You’d normally be expecting something around 10 or 15 per cent,” Pascoe said.
“What we’ve said to the staff all along is: ‘the only thing we can do is to do a good job’. The politicking is not our role, that’s the role of the peak bodies.
“So we’ve worked really hard on that and the staff have remained really focussed. And then the only thing we could do as an executive was to keep the staff informed.
“Unless something is highly confidential, and it’s not too often that it is, we share it with the staff.
“Each Friday we have a morning tea and everyone just brings their coffee and we just have a bit of a roundup of what's been happening over the week. I think they’ve found that quite helpful.”
The ACNC has also been the subject of questions over whether or not it is good value for money, something that Pascoe is more than happy to answer.
“We take all of our back office services from the ATO. That’s an incredibly efficient way to operate,” she said.
“In terms of value for money I do think that we are very efficient operation. People here are incredibly passionate and committed to the sector which is fabulous.
“The revenue of the Not for Profit sector is $100 billion, it’s four per cent of the economy, it’s got 1 million employees and it’s growing at the rate of six per cent per annum.
“So if you think about that it’s a significant subsector of the Australian economy and to have a regulator that’s able to the job for around $14 to $15 million a year is actually a pretty efficient mode of operating.
“The benefits are not just there for the sector, there are enormous benefits for the public.”