Who is Gary Johns?
Thursday, 7th December 2017 at 2:09 pm
On Thursday it was announced that Dr Gary Johns would be the new commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) for a five-year period.
In announcing the appointment, Assistant Minister Michael Sukkar described Johns as “a respected leader in the charities and not-for-profits sector, having served as a member of the Prime Minister’s Community Business Partnership, advising the government on practical strategies to foster a culture of philanthropic giving, volunteering and investment in Australia”.
But the news of his appointment has been greeted with a large degree of animosity and surprise from the charities sector, as well as from Labor MP Andrew Leigh who said “putting Gary Johns in charge of the charities commission is like putting Ned Kelly in charge of bank security”.
So who is Gary Johns?
Johns is a director of the Australian Institute for Progress and an adjunct professor at the Queensland University of Technology Business School.
He also has wide-ranging experience in regulation, public service and policy, serving as an associate commissioner of the Productivity Commission, a senior consultant at ACIL Tasman and an associate professor at the Australian Catholic University.
He served in the House of Representatives from 1987 to 1996, representing the electorate of Petrie, and held a number of roles in the Keating government, including parliamentary secretary to the deputy prime minister, parliamentary secretary to the treasurer, special minister of state and assistant minister for industrial relations.
More recently Johns has drifted from the ALP and has been critical of his old party.
He has become well known as a columnist to The Australian, and has authored a number of books on the charities and not-for-profits sector.
One of which, The Charity Ball: How to Dance to the Donors’ Tune, published in 2014, came with the blurb: “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.”
For many in the sector, Johns has become known as a staunch critic of charities and their right to advocate.
In 2014 he was quoted as saying: “The Abbott government promised to abolish the Charities Act 2013, which includes advocacy as a charitable purpose. It must make good that promise in a way that makes it clear to the High Court that advocacy is not a charitable purpose”.
A former senior fellow at conservative think-tank the Institute of Public Affairs, Johns has also been a critic of environmental groups who campaign against fossil fuels as well as charities who send money overseas.
In an article in The Australian in 2015, he said Parliament’s inquiry into environmental charities “should question the presumption of public benefit in environmental charities”.
He has also previously attacked charity beyondblue, for raising concerns about the welfare of LGBTI Australians who it said faced greater risks to their mental health because of “violence, prejudice and discrimination”.
“The Beyond Blue line that the tragedy of some LGBTI people is all about discrimination and nothing to do with sexual identity is not supported by evidence. An attempt to draw conclusions unsupported by evidence does no dignity to the national debate and is not remotely the work of a charity,” Johns said.
As well as the charity sector, Johns has frequently been outspoken on the subject of welfare.
Speaking against this backdrop, Community Council of Australia CEO David Crosbie said it was a “bizarre appointment”, to make him head of the ACNC which sent a “signal to charities the government is out to get them”.
But Johns said he would be “neither friend nor foe”.
“My job is to apply the law and advocacy is a charitable purpose when taken in conjunction with other charitable purposes,” Johns said.
Sukkar rejected the concerns, saying Johns would apply the law as an “independent regulator”.
“I don’t think we ever should require that we expunge views or comments that have been over a 30 or 40 year career,” Sukkar said.
“But as Dr Johns has pointed out, he is here to apply the law as it is contained in the [Charities Act] and the fact that he has a deep understanding of these issues in a more philosophical sense is a strength.”