Charity Sector Still Fighting After Tough Year – Senator
10 November 2015 at 9:55 am
Despite a year full of hurdles, the Federal Government has yet to destroy the spirit of the charity and Not for Profit sector, which despite challenges remains committed, vibrant and full of variety, writes Greens Senator, Rachel Siewert.
Anyone involved in the Not for Profit sector as a volunteer, board member, staffer, advocate or client will be aware of the struggles that charities and NFPs have faced over the last couple of years; some of those at the hands of our Federal Government. With a Government that has undermined the work of the sector in a caring society; funding uncertainty and service gaps have significantly increased.
Often there are so many incremental changes to the sector it becomes hard to track them and evaluate their overall impact. This article aims to detail just some of the ways the Government has made life more difficult for the sector.
We’ll review a few of them here as we look back at 2015 and towards 2016 – where hopefully the sector will be given a little more breathing space to thrive and diversify.
What I find most upsetting about the NFP sector being thrown unnecessary curve balls is the impacts on people who need help. One example is when a women’s shelter in the Dampier Peninsula didn’t make the cut under the chaotic Indigenous Advancement Strategy. If it were not for hard campaigning and media attention that saved the shelter, the Djarindjin safe house would have had to shut their doors on June 30 of this year. It’s these real life experiences that bring home the impact of these cuts (over half a billion dollars in 2014 from Aboriginal funding) and a chaotic funding process.
For some context: The Indigenous Advancement Strategy rollout commenced last year by the Federal Government was pitched as a streamlining of funding delivery for programs that could provide greater flexibility for communities. The process turned out to be opaque and chaotic. The Government failed to provide a full list of who would and wouldn’t be funded, and how much each organisation was to receive, for what and where. There was a great deal of concern expressed about the whole process and the need for thorough investigation. In response to this concern I moved for the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee to examine the program’s tender process, with a focus on the impact on the efficiency and sustainability of service delivery. Many distressed groups were scrambling around trying to work out if they had made the cut, while other groups were still trying to find out what they have been funded for and for how much. Bottom line is there continues to be significant service gaps.
I also initiated a similar inquiry into the Department of Social Services grants application program. We saw budget cuts of $270 million over four years to programs funded under the DSS, and the subsequent grants process also caused concern and uncertainty across the community sector. Last year this culminated in some organisations being told just days before Christmas that their applications had been rejected and that funding will be discontinued, in some cases as soon as February. Many organisations had funding cuts that threaten the viability of the services they provide, advocacy continues to a particular area the Government has a problem with.
Over the last couple of years a cloud has hung over the ACNC as Government tried to dismantle the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission. The ACNC regulates and safeguards a vibrant, diverse and independent civil society. Fortunately the Government has indicated it is stepping away from this legislation, but we must continue to demand that the Government takes this idea off the table completely. Also causing concern for some organisations is that the Government plans to cap the Fringe Benefit Tax exemption for the sector, which serves as an incentive for workers in the NFP sector .
Let’s not forget the Government’s attempts to gag NFPs from speaking about Government policy. Mid last year Attorney General George Brandis tweaked the wording of service agreements under which the Federal Government provides funding.
He deleted one important clause: “The Commonwealth is committed to ensuring that its agreements do not contain provisions that could be used to stifle legitimate debate or prevent organisations engaging in advocacy activities… No right or obligation arising under this Agreement will be read or understood by the Commonwealth as limiting the Organisation’s right to enter into public debate or criticism of the Commonwealth, its agencies, employees, servants or agents.”
The clause was replaced with a prohibition against an attempt to shape policy using Commonwealth money. This gives the Government the power to gag NFPs who may wish to campaign on (or against) Government policy. This impedes on the communities capacity to comment on legislation that affects how our society runs.
The Government’s response to the Harper Competition review, and moves to open up delivery of human and social services to the private sector, has huge ramifications for the sector and could further destabilise and undermine the delivery of services and needs to be carefully watched next year.
Despite funding cuts, shoddy funding rollouts, attempts to scrap regulators, gag clauses, or abolishing incentives, the Government has yet to destroy the spirit of the charity and Not for Profit sector, which despite challenges remains committed, vibrant and full of variety.
About the author: Senator Rachel Siewert is the Greens spokesperson on Ageing and Disability Services.