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Charities Express Shock At ‘Bizarre’ Appointment of Gary Johns to Head ACNC

7 December 2017 at 2:08 pm
Luke Michael
The social sector is reeling at the “bizarre” appointment of Dr Gary Johns – considered a staunch critic of charities –  as the new commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC).

Luke Michael | 7 December 2017 at 2:08 pm


Charities Express Shock At ‘Bizarre’ Appointment of Gary Johns to Head ACNC
7 December 2017 at 2:08 pm

The social sector is reeling at the “bizarre” appointment of Dr Gary Johns – considered a staunch critic of charities –  as the new commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC).

Assistant treasurer Michael Sukkar announced Johns as the new head of the ACNC on Thursday, following an independent “merit-based” process with a selection panel consisting of the secretary of the Treasury, John Fraser, the ACNC advisory board chair, Tony Stuart, and the secretary of the Department of Finance, Rosemary Huxtable.

“The ACNC is a statutory appointment, and as is the convention with statutory appointments, the government adhered to the Australian Public Service Commission’s policies with a merit based selection [process],” Sukkar said.

“Thankfully, 25 excellent applications were received, and the selection panel shortly put applicants through interviews. Due diligence checks were completed and a selection report was compiled. This report, which I note was endorsed by the Australian Public Service commissioner, was then provided to the government, who very happily agreed with the recommendation of the report to appoint Dr Johns.

“Following that recommendation, I met Dr Johns for the first time and was very pleased and could understand entirely why that independent process sought to appoint him as the new ACNC commissioner. We therefore took the decision to accept that.”

Who is Gary Johns?

See here for a profile on the new head of the ACNC.

Johns – who previously served as a Labor minister in the Keating government and as a senior fellow at conservative think tank the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) – has been a vocal critic of charities in the past, and this has caused severe backlash from the charity sector.

Community Council for Australia CEO David Crosbie, said Johns’ appointment had charities across Australia shaking their heads in disbelief.

“This is a bizarre appointment. Gary Johns has made numerous public statements that clearly indicate he is opposed to many charities and their work. Only a government committed to attacking the charities sector would put someone like Gary Johns in as head of the ACNC,” Crosbie said.

Crosbie also questioned whether Johns had the capacity to fulfil the high-profile role.

“The ACNC commissioner is a very tough gig. It requires real expertise, personal capacity, and a commitment to enhancing the valuable work done in our charities sector. Dr Johns has demonstrated none of these characteristics,” he said.

“I fail to see how Dr Johns could manage an agency of over 100 dedicated staff, administer a complex set of laws and regulations, provide responsive services, reduce red tape and build community trust and confidence in the charities sector.”

Labor and The Greens have also slammed the appointment. Labor’s shadow minister for charities and not-for-profits Andrew Leigh, said appointing Johns to head the ACNC “was like putting Ned Kelly in charge of the nation’s bank security”.

“The appointment of Gary Johns to head the charities commission takes the war on charities to a whole new level. Putting Gary Johns in charge of the charities commission is like putting Ned Kelly in charge of bank security. This is somebody who has been a trenchant critic of charities throughout his life. We’ve seen from Gary Johns an attitude towards charities which is unbecoming of the head of the body which is aimed to regulate them,” Leigh said.

“Michael Sukkar said that he hadn’t read Gary Johns’ work. So, let me go through a few of the examples of things that Mr Johns has said. In his book, The Charity Ball published in 2014, he wrote ‘there is a great deal of impure altruism in the charities business’.

“He’s called on the government to abolish the Charities Act 2013 [that would] take charities law back to the 1600s. That’s what the new head of the charities commission believes. Charities will be horrified by this appointment. This is somebody being appointed to head the charities commission who is a critic of theirs, not a supporter of theirs.”

Australian Greens Senator Rachel Siewert also attacked the appointment of Johns, which she said sent a clear signal to the charity and not-for-profit sector that the government was not on their side.

“Gary Johns is strongly anti-charity and will surely make it impossible to be impartial in his role as commissioner for the ACNC”, Siewert said.

“Appointing someone as commissioner of the ACNC who has been a long term critic of the charities sector is like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. The government clearly has the intention of eroding the charities and not-for-profit sector.

“At a time when charities and not-for-profits (who work to protect vulnerable people criticised by Mr Johns) are under threat from the Commonwealth, the charity sector needs a commissioner who will advocate for the sector so that it can flourish.”

Johns takes over the role after Susan Pascoe was controversially not re-appointed as commissioner after her five-year term ended this year.

Since Pascoe left the ACNC in September, David Locke served as acting commissioner in October, while Murray Baird has served as acting commissioner since November.

Baird told Pro Bono News that while he could not comment on the process because it was “a ministerial appointment”, he said the ACNC welcomed a new commissioner.

“I’ve spoken to Dr Johns this morning and congratulated him on behalf of the ACNC staff, and we look forward to working with the new commissioner in his leadership of the work of the ACNC,” Baird said.

The appointment of the new commissioner will provide clarity and certainty at the ACNC.”

Baird said he expected Johns to commence as commissioner immediately, and added that he, along with David Locke, would continue in their roles at the charity regulator.

“Both David Locke and [myself] will hold substantive positions within the ACNC, with assistant commissioner, general counsel being my role and David Locke’s role as assistant commissioner, charity services. We will continue in these roles.”  

Dr David Gilchrist, professor at the UWA Business School who is also an advisory board member of the ACNC, told Pro Bono News that it had been “a curious process” to select the new commissioner.

“The ACNC board is advisory in nature so it is not necessarily the case that the board would be fully informed. However, I as a board member, am very keen to understand the rationale for this appointment and look forward to discussing the new commissioner’s objectives and strategy over coming weeks,” Gilchrist said.

“I think it is up to the new commissioner to demonstrate his credentials for undertaking this role and build up his own credibility, it is not for me to surmise on those things. However, presumably he has an interest and intent with respect to taking this role and it will be interesting to discuss this in due course.

“At the end of the day, Mr Johns’ public record and stance on a number of issues relevant to many in this sector is out there and it does tell a particular story. He now needs to demonstrate what he is going to bring to this really difficult role.

“The commissioner at the ACNC is a very difficult role, because it is not a traditional regulator role, it has broader legislative responsibilities and it is a very complex sector.”

Speaking at the announcement on Thursday morning, Johns said he was pleased to assume the role of ACNC commissioner, and outlined how his experience in the sector shaped his view of charities.

“I’ve been a part of the not-for-profit sector my entire adult life. Charities are given a special standing in Australian life and it’s granted by government. So it’s important that taxpayers know what charities are doing with this special privilege granted to them,” Johns said.

“The insight I want to bring after 40 years of being a part of the not-for-profit sector, is that especially when it comes to charities, we should think about the market in charitable intentions. What I mean by that is, without donors giving money and time there would be no charity… and we need to keep in mind [that] donors give money to charities in the expectation that most of it will be used for the charitable purpose.

“So these are matters I want to bring to the fore as part of the work of the charity commission. We’re not simply a registry for charities. We want to think about how well the market operates for those people who need the work that donors give.”

Johns said that he would look to offer Australians greater transparency about the charities they looked to donate to.

“The step we’re going to take now, is to use the data that we already asked of charities and use it to greater effect, so that donors can see how charities are operated,” he said.

“Once you get to do that, the donor can look inside the market and see how many charities offer deeds in their area of interest or how many don’t. So we may pick up gaps and overlaps in the market.

“So I intend as far as possible, to put more information at the hands and literally the fingertips of donors so they’ll drive the market.”

Johns acknowledged his earlier criticisms of charities and advocacy, but said he would be “neither friend nor foe” to the sector, but would rather just apply the law.

“The law is that advocacy is a charitable purpose. I don’t have a political view,” he said.

“Of course, I did [in the past], I hope you read all of my works. My job is to apply the law, and advocacy is a charitable purpose when taken in conjunction with other charitable purposes.

“It’s the law and I will apply the law, that’s my job.”

Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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