A Fox in Charge of a Hen House
22 December 2017 at 3:01 pm
This year has been a tough one for the charities and not-for-profit sector, with the federal government ramping up its attack on advocacy and repositioning the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC), writes WA Greens Senator Rachel Siewert.
When you think of the charities and not-for-profit sector you think of all the work they do for the vulnerable, our community and environment. One would assume they focus their energy on their work and raising the resources in order to do said work.
Unfortunately, the Australian charities and not-for-profit sector has had to allocate some of its energy to fending off a sustained and long-running attack by government.
Starting in the Howard era and taken up again by Mr Abbott, it has become abundantly clear that not for profits who dare to speak up against government policy decisions will be met with fire and fury.
This year has been a particularly tough one. In 2017, a multi-pronged attack by the federal government has ramped up more than ever to silence the sector and reduce advocacy and dissent.
Members of the government question the tax deductibility status of environmental groups that they deem pesky because they advocate to protect places such as the Great Barrier Reef (which the government is putting at risk with its plans to push on with the Adani mine).
This won’t stop at environmental advocacy, it is clear the government wants to stifle dissent across the charitable and not-for-profit sector, and it is not just environmental organisations in their sights.
Fast track to the end of the year, and whilst marriage equality was on the brink of being historically ushered into law, and as many charities prepared for their busiest time of year, there was a quiet announcement that Gary Johns had been appointed commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC). I couldn’t believe my ears.
The appointment, clearly announced on a day where it would be overshadowed, was unlikely to make the evening news that night, but I knew it was more bad news for charities and not for profits that engage in advocacy and civil society.
Being the Australian Greens spokesperson on charities and having worked in the not-for-profit sector myself for a long time, I was already aware of his anti-charity and not for profit sentiments that surely should make his appointment untenable.
Mr Johns has written a whole book about the charities sector, A Charity Ball, which states that “too many charities in Australia do little or no charity work, too many receive most of their income from government and too many lobby government for more”.
On top of this, Mr Johns made disparaging comments about pregnant Aboriginal women (which I do not intend to repeat), and has linked access to our social safety net with contraception. It is the not-for-profit sector that seeks to protect these vulnerable people that Mr Johns criticises.
The ACNC has built a strong reputation as an independent and transparent regulator for the charities and not-for-profit sector. A strong active civil society is an essential component of our democracy. This government, when in opposition, fought the establishment of the ACNC and when it first came into power one of its missions was to get rid of it.
Fortunately, civil society and the Senate resisted its abolition and the government caved, but since then the government has pursued charities and not for profits, particularly those who play a strong role in advocacy.
Now the government has started eyeing off the role of the ACNC again; it is for this reason that a commissioner with such articulated bias can clearly be seen as part of the government’s agenda to neuter the sector.
It represents a repositioning of the ACNC as a body that will breathe down the neck of the charities and not-for-profit sector rather than regulate with a light touch and seek to help strengthen the sector.
Over the years the corrosive notion that speaking up too loudly will be met with political retribution has meant that government got what it wanted. Civil Voices, an initiative by Pro Bono Australia and the Human Rights Law Centre, found charities and not for profits feel pressured to take a more restrained approach when it comes to advocacy for fear of losing funding or their DGR status.
Years and years of Commonwealth berating and punishing not for profits for delving into political advocacy has resulted in a high level of self-silencing, where advocates simply don’t speak up as loudly as they used to. This government prefers charities to be tending to the vulnerable silently and not address the underlying causes of their vulnerability, or quietly planting trees without asking why they are being ripped out in the first place.
As a result, the report found “public debate in Australia is not as healthy as it ought to be in a developed liberal democracy”, this is worrying. In a democracy it is absolutely essential that governments listen to and act on constructive criticism from experts and advocates. We start to erode civil society when charities and not for profits are self-silencing.
The government wants to silence strong advocates – particularly during election campaigns – that is why as we head into a likely election year there is a doubling down on government’s efforts to silence dissent.
Gary Johns’ elevation to the commissioner for charities is a part of this, it will be like a fox in charge of a hen house. Unfortunately it looks like 2018 is set to be another tough one for the sector.
About the author: Rachel Siewert is the Australian Greens Whip and a Senator for Western Australia. She is the Greens spokesperson on Ageing and Disability Services.