Government Accused of Undermining Australia’s Charities
9 February 2018 at 3:38 pm
The government is undermining Australia’s charities, the shadow minister for charities and not for profits has claimed.
In a discussion of matter of public importance raised in the House of Representatives on Thursday, Labor MP Andrew Leigh accused the government of “continuing its war on charities, prompting open letters and protests from the sector”.
His concerns addressed the proposed foreign donations ban as well as the recent appointment of “well-known charities critic” Dr Gary Johns to head the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission and attempts to “shut down the ability of charities to advocate”.
“The approach that the Turnbull government takes towards charities is that they should be seen but not heard, that they can serve out soup in a soup kitchen but can’t talk about the causes of poverty, that they can plant trees but can’t talk about deforestation, that they can assist Indigenous people on the ground but they can’t possibly talk about the root causes of Indigenous disadvantage,” Leigh said.
“The government want to put a velvet rope across the entry to the public square. They are hurting not only charities but also the very quality of Australian public debate, which demands a multiplicity of voices.”
Leigh told Pro Bono News it was a “vital debate”.
“And, sadly, one which has been going on long before the latest foreign donation legislation was proposed,” he said.
“The Abbott and Turnbull governments have been waging a war against charities for years. They tried to destroy the charities commission, put gag clauses in social services agreements, attempted to shut down the ability of charities to advocate and they are now trying to extend the ban on overseas donations to political parties to also cover charities.
“We share the concerns of the sector and we want the Turnbull government to listen. Australians trust charities to speak out on policy issues. Labor believes that vocal charities are an essential component of a vibrant democracy.”
On the subject of foreign donations, Leigh said he had met with dozens of charities concerned about “the latest salvo in the Liberals’ war on charities”, and he drew attention to the large amount of opposition to the bill.
“These laws have been opposed by GetUp! and the Institute of Public Affairs—probably the only time in Australia’s history when GetUp! and the IPA have agreed on the same thing,” he said.
Leigh raised concerns the bill conflated political campaigning and issue advocacy.
He made reference to the Civil Voices report, an initiative by Pro Bono Australia and the Human Rights Law Centre, which found two-thirds of Australian charities are finding it harder to be heard by the federal government than they were five years ago.
“When you look at how the Liberals have spent the last five years, it’s not very surprising,” he said.
“We’ve had five ministers in five years responsible for the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission: Kevin Andrews, Scott Morrison, Christian Porter, Michael McCormack and Michael Sukkar. And we saw a period, from 2011 to 2016, in which the Liberals tried to close down the charities commission, a body supported by four out of five charities.
“The Liberals have put gag clauses in social services agreements, have attempted to shut down the ability of charities to advocate and are now trying to expand the ban on overseas donations to political parties to also cover charities. To paraphrase the great Malcolm Tucker, those on the other side of the House have a rap sheet longer than a Leonard Cohen song.”
He also repeated his earlier criticism of the appointment of Johns to head the ACNC, equating it to “putting Ned Kelly in charge of bank security”.
However in response Assistant Minister to the Treasurer Michael Sukkar dismissed Leigh’s comments as a “grab bag of character assassinations, complaints and the shadow minister crowing about being the shadow minister for charities and not for profits”.
He said Leigh showed “no thought or concern for the people who fund charities: the donors”
On the matter of foreign donations Sukkar said the ban had been “carefully designed to prevent loopholes for foreign money”.
“We believe foreign interests shouldn’t be funding election advertising or how-to vote material, regardless of whether that campaigning is undertaken by a political party or somebody else,” he said.
Sukkar also defended the appointment of Johns.
“I think Dr Johns, as he has pointed out, will apply the law and will enforce the law as the ACNC is there to do. The ACNC is not an advocacy body for the sector. The ACNC, like ASIC and like any other regulator, is there to regulate the industry,” he said.
“The Turnbull government’s position is very clear. We obviously had a process over many years of seeing the ACNC in action. The member for Fenner referred to the former ACNC commissioner – whom the government reappointed, I might add. She is someone who was respected. Now we have another highly respected individual, in Dr Johns, who will take carriage of the ACNC.
“The ACNC’s job is to ensure that charities are used for the purposes for which they are on the register, the purposes for which they obtain tax concessions generously provided by taxpayers. The ACNC’s job is to ensure that there is no ‘set and forget’ for charities. Once you are on the register, once you are entitled to generous tax concessions provided by Australian taxpayers, you must continue to act in accordance with what you’ve promised you’re going to do.”
Deputy manager of opposition business Mark Dreyfus, and MPs Tim Wilson, Andrew Giles, Sarah Henderson, Justine Keay, Andrew Laming, Milton Dick and John Alexander OAM also addressed the floor in the discussion, which featured a lot of back and forth between the two parties.
Dreyfus raised concerns the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill 2017 would capture charities “whose conduct, activities and purposes are entirely benign and completely benefit our nation” and increase red tape for sector, despite the fact the charities were already regulated by the ACNC.
“These charities contribute in an overwhelmingly positive manner to our society, but the effect of this bill, as it stands, will be to strangle many of them in wasteful and unnecessary regulation,” Dreyfus said.
“I hope that that effect is only the unintended consequence of this bill—a consequence of sloppy drafting; the origin of which was made clear by the former attorney-general’s claim that he was closely involved in the formulation of the bill. But, if on the other hand, this is the intended effect of the bill — to silence charities — it is truly shameful.”
Keay said it was clear the government was “continuing to undermine” charities, and said there already existed a “climate of fear” among charities.
“But now this government wants to go even further and stifle their voice and tie them up in bureaucratic knots,” she said.
She referenced Pro Bono News’ recent survey of the charity sector that found many charities were unclear and uncertain about how they stand to be affected by the government’s electoral funding and disclosure reform bill.
However Henderson argued “contrary to a misleading and misinformed scare campaign”, the foreign donations bill would have no impact on the vast majority of charities.
It comes days after Mathias Cormann, the special minister of state, conceded the Coalition may have to make changes to the bill.