Saving the ACNC
26 May 2015 at 11:21 am
The Not for Profit sector’s successful fight to defend the national charity regulator puts the ACNC in a stellar position to get on with the job, writes former Federal Labor media advisor, Toni Hassan.
The Abbott Government was not going to make a song and dance of the fact that it has given up on abolishing the charities commission.
2015-16 Budget Related Paper 1.16 uses the same studiously neutral language it used last time to confirm that the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) is here to stay.
“The ACNC provides independent determination and registration of charities, health promotion institutions, and public benevolent institutions for all Commonwealth purposes.”
“The implementation of a ‘report-once, use-often’ general reporting framework is to reduce red tape and simplify the regulatory framework… to make it easier for not-for-profits to deliver their services to the community.”
“On 19 March 2014, the Government introduced the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission Repeal Bill. However, the ACNC will continue to operate in its current form whilst the current ACNC Act remains in effect and the programme expenses reflect this.”
What happened was a tenacious campaign by the sector. Abolishing the ACNC the assistant treasurer conceded was no longer a government priority.
In place since in December 2012, the charities commission is a one-stop shop for charities and Not for Profits who deal with the government. It replaced the Australian Tax Office as the body that had to decide who had the right to claim that status and a myriad of other state, territory and Commonwealth bodies that investigated complaints and advised the public about who it was safe to deal with. The Tax Office was particularly unsuited to its role, being primarily concerned with raising revenue.
Over the past two years the ACNC has investigated 1300 complaints against charities, revoked the status of 9, prepared guides for volunteers and guides for charities wanting to use volunteers and opened to the public the records of 23,000 organisations.
The Coalition came to office promising to abolish it. It included it in its first red tape repeal day. The minister Kevin Andrews said it was heavy-handed and unnecessary. This wasn’t the view of the overwhelmingly majority in the sector that was pleased to at last have a charity-specific regulator that cared about it (Private companies that administer charitable trusts and some in the Catholic Church, not enthusiastic about the extra scrutiny, were the most critical).
A Senate inquiry into the government’s plan to kill the commission was flooded with submissions praising its gentle approach and the fact that it has already made life easier.
“If the Government decides to proceed to repeal it, we strongly urge that the good works that have been done and the progress made in reducing reports be retained by any subsequent body,” one submission said. Another said the commission was a “dream come true”.
This is a victory for the sector and a tireless Labor Opposition, who with support from the Australian Greens and Senator Nick Xenophon, kept up the pressure. Also the agency itself just kept plod, plod, plodding, proving itself under duress.
It’s a lesson too in how to get and sustain reform. The charities regulator was not imposed but born of the sector. It was also recommended by the highly-credible Productivity Commission. It was in incubation a long time. Good things worth fighting for take time and when threatened need a multitude of voices.
It’s an encouraging win for a sector whose clients have been ignored or pushed around by two consecutive federal budgets.
Community health is especially aggrieved as areas like drug treatment have only received basic bridging funds while the Commonwealth throws money at a glossy and confronting ad campaign on ice-addiction with an arguable evidence-base. Meanwhile attacks on the States mean less money for public hospital emergency departments dealing with increasing numbers of aggressive ice-affected patients. Go figure.
SBS’s Struggle Street brought the complexity into our living rooms (insensitively, although television easily reduces lives to outrageous soundbites). With the cameras gone, and no meaningful state or federal political reaction, residents of stigmatised Mount Druitt in Sydney just feel shattered.
Canberra’s struggle streets are not so clear. Disadvantage is peppered throughout the city with less defined patterns of intergenerational poverty. That’s a good thing although groups rather than places are persistently poor; single parents and the long term unemployed struggling to live on depressingly low income support in a high-cost city.
Indirectly the charities commission will help Not for Profits better allocate resources so they can enhance their support for disadvantaged communities, and with less administrative hassle. The ACNC will eventually provide data sets about which charities are working where and therefore how they may work together to empower people’s lives.
Governments generally divide communities by isolating “problems” with buckets of funds for problem areas such as mental health, drug and alcohol etc. It has forced charities to be be issue-specific rather than be holistic and community-development minded. Just maybe charities can break this nonsensical approach and more of them can become more collaborative and innovative under the umbrella of a supportive regulatory body.
As we head to the end of the financial year, charities will be updating the ACNC with their annual information statements. The general aims are increased accountability and transparency.
The charities commission will face tougher times as it steps up to be a regulator with all that that implies. But the sector’s successful fight to defend it puts the ACNC in a stellar position to get on with the job.
About the author: Toni Hassan is a Canberra-based writer. She is a former journalist who has worked in the Not for Profit sector and for Federal Parliamentarians, Dr Andrew Leigh and Senator Claire Moore as a media adviser. Twitter: @ToniHassan