The Charity Year of Change – 2017
20 December 2017 at 11:52 am
While Australian politics saw a year of turmoil and controversy, the Australian charity sector experienced a year of major change and adjustment, in an environment where advocacy was firmly under the spotlight, as Lina Caneva reports in this review of 2017.
2017 saw the first anniversary of the roll out of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, an ongoing campaign to #fixfundraising regulations, the final report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, DGR regulatory reform, ongoing homelessness challenges, the same-sex marriage decision, a new fundraising code, controversy around the charity regulator’s new commissioner, a spotlight on advocacy as new research revealed charities were “self silencing” and so much more.
Amidst the controversy and change, there was plenty of good news for the sector as mining magnate Andrew Forrest made philanthropic history with a $400 million donation, research showed trust in charities remained strong and not for profit CEO Violet Roumeliotis from Settlement Services International (SSI) was named Telstra’s national business woman of the year. Guide Dogs Australia was again named the nation’s most trusted charity as part of the annual Reader’s Digest Trusted Brands survey for the fifth consecutive year.
Looking back to the beginning of the year, the not-for-profit sector kicked off 2017 with a campaign to #fixfundraising. In February, charity peak body, Community Council for Australia (CCA) mounted a campaign to name and shame ministers and senior bureaucrats that blocked the harmonisation of fundraising regulations in Australia.
As the campaign rolled on, more than 150 charities signed an open letter addressed to the prime minister and state premiers declaring Australia’s charity fundraising regulations “were a mess” costing the sector tens of millions of dollars in lost productivity.
By August campaign leaders, CCA and Justice Connect, claimed a “small victory” when consumer affairs ministers agreed to clarify, through “regulatory guidance”, the application of the Australian Consumer Law (ACL) to fundraising.
In May, the federal government unveiled its 2017 budget with Treasurer Scott Morrison describing it as a budget of “fairness, opportunity and security” – making housing and homelessness and fully funding the NDIS a centrepiece of its program.
The federal government delivered $117.2 million in funding to support front-line services addressing homelessness, extending the Transitional National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness (NPAH) until June 2018.
For the NDIS, July 2017 marked the first anniversary of the scheme’s roll out with a number of reports highlighting “teething problems” for people with disability and service providers, as well as ongoing staffing issues
A long-awaited position paper from the Productivity Commission, released in June, recommended a slow-down in the NDIS implementation or else it would be at “risk”.
A report by the peak body for service providers, National Disability Services (NDS), warned people were being rushed into the NDIS to the detriment of providing quality service.
The report said: “The scale and complexity of implementation is placing enormous pressure on all stakeholders. Some of this pressure is an inevitable consequence of large-scale change, but some is avoidable. The road to the NDIS is rougher and riskier than it needs to be.”
NDS chief executive Ken Baker told Pro Bono News at the time that the NDS wanted a “slow-down” on the ambitious implementation targets.
The former managing director of Bankwest, Rob De Luca, was announced as the new CEO of the overseeing body, the NDIA, on the same day the “first sod” was turned on the site of the new headquarters in Geelong.
An inaugural report into the Australian disability workforce also revealed a sector growing rapidly and experimenting with work arrangements and recruitment approaches – with more casual employees in the disability sector than in the aged care sector.
In June 2017 the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) inaugural commissioner Susan Pascoe AM announced she would step aside at the end of her five year tenure raising concerns about transparency around the replacement process.
The government’s decision six months later drew widespread concern from the sector. Dr Gary Johns’ appointment was labelled “bizarre” and criticised by many in the sector, especially due to past comments he had made attacking charities and their right to advocate.
Just days after Johns was appointed to the top job, a petition was launched calling for his resignation.
“Gary Johns’ attitude towards our charities and his views on many of the vulnerable communities they work with make his role as charities commissioner untenable,” the petition said.
Also in 2017, a landmark move by more than 250 Indigenous leaders from across the country called for the establishment of a representative body to be enshrined in the constitution as Australia’s first Indigenous treaty and a truth and reconciliation commission – two decades since the landmark Bringing Them Home report shone a light on the stolen generation. But by November the prime minister had rejected their call.
By December, after a year-long debate, the social sector welcomed the federal government’s proposed Deductible Gift Recipient (DGR) reforms including a move away from plans to limit environmental advocacy.
The reforms included a move to integrate the DGR registers and Overseas Aid Gift Deduction Scheme with the ACNC charity register, as well as abolishing duplicative reporting requirements.
Significantly for environmental charities, the government also said it would “not mandate a level of remediation by environmental organisations”.
This was confirmed by Treasurer Scott Morrison, who delivered his Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) on Monday which included a $5.7 million funding boost for the charity regulator to “boost integrity” of the framework surrounding DGR.
Also in 2017 a major research collaboration between Pro Bono Australia, the Human Rights Law Centre and University of Melbourne academics, the Civil Voices project, found that Australian charities were “self-silencing” for fear of risking their financial security or attracting political retribution.
Civil Voices set out to examine how public debate and advocacy had evolved over a decade and whether NGO perceptions of their capacity to participate in public debate has changed.
It found “public debate in Australia is not as healthy as it ought to be in a developed liberal democracy”.
Report co-author, University of Melbourne Associate Professor Sarah Maddison said the main finding was “fairly insidious”.
“We’ve moved away from the really overtly hostile period of governance of the civil society sector. Instead what we are seeing is that the sector itself has taken on board some of those concerns into a mode of operation that we’re calling ‘self-silencing’,” Maddison said.
The year ended with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse handing down its 17-volume final report, which contained 189 new recommendations to better prevent and respond to future instances of abuse.
The social sector responded by urging Australian institutions to commit to systemic change in the wake of the findings, as concerns were raised around the exemptions to governance standards offered to religious charities.
The main recommendations included the establishment of a National Office for Child Safety, a change in law requiring religious ministers to report abuse offences to church and civil authorities, and the removal of religious ministers convicted of sexual abuse.
Again in December the federal government released its controversial new legislation to ban foreign political donations to all these categories of political actors – including charities and advocacy groups.
The class of political campaigner will be defined as an organisation which has incurred more than $100,000 worth of political expenditure in any of the previous four years, or which has incurred $50,000 or more in political expenditure where that respects 50 per cent or more of their annual budget.
But according to GetUp, the so-called “GetUp clause” marked an “unprecedented attack” on the organisation’s independence, which it says will force the movement to either associate with one or more political parties or radically scale back its work.
Federal parliament ended the year with the passing of the same sex marriage legislation and a reshuffle of ministerial portfolios.
The not-for-profit sector will start 2018 with a new minister for social services, Victorian federal MP Dan Tehan. The reshuffle includes a newly created post of minister for children and families which has been given to Dr David Gillespie, while Christian Porter has been named the new attorney general.
Editor’s (final) note: And on a personal note December sees my retirement as the founding editor of Pro Bono Australia News. Thanks to Pro Bono Australia founder Karen Mahlab for taking me on this 18-year stellar journey. My thanks also to those sector leaders and advocates who believed in the value of an independent news service and contributed with their news and views. I leave the role of editor in the good hands of Wendy Williams with the assistance of journalist Luke Michael. I will now watch the sector’s progress from the sidelines and will remain keenly interested in its future. Please stay in contact via linacaneva@gmail.