ACNC Head Defends Decision to Go It Alone in the Senate
Friday, 1st June 2018 at 8:30 am
The head of the national charity regulator has defended his “absurd” decision to appear alone before Senate Estimates.
Commonwealth agency heads are called to Canberra three times a year to appear before their respective Senate committees, which for the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, is the Economics Legislation Committee.
When appearing before the Senate on Wednesday, ACNC commissioner Dr Gary Johns made the choice to appear alone.
However the move has raised eyebrows among the charity sector.
Community Council for Australia CEO David Crosbie told Pro Bono News the decision to go alone was “absurd”.
“Three times a year the ACNC answers to the Parliament for its performance through Senate Estimates. The suggestion that the ACNC should not present to the Parliament with the best expertise available in order to save travel costs is clearly absurd,” Crosbie said.
“Unlike Dr Johns, assistant commissioners Locke and Baird travel economy (by choice) so the total travel cost of having the two most knowledgeable staff present to answer Senator’s questions in all Senate Estimates would be less than $8,000.
“Dr Johns lives in Brisbane and commutes to Melbourne claiming travel costs whenever he is in the ACNC office. He has also set up an office in Brisbane at considerable cost. It is hypocritical, at best, for someone who refuses to move to the city where the organisation he is meant to be head of is based, who claims extensive travel costs and additional office costs, to express concern about the travel bill of the ACNC.”
It marks a departure from previous protocol established by former commissioner Susan Pascoe, who brought experts including assistant commissioners David Locke and Murray Baird, to answer parliamentary questions rather than relying on the appearance of a single commissioner.
Crosbie said it was also important to note that other government agencies appearing before Senate Estimates always brought staff with expertise to the Senate hearings.
He said it was considered “good governance practice” to be accountable and to be able to answer questions asked by the Parliament, “whether you are head of the Australian Taxation Office or head of a smaller agency”.
“I know of no other agency where only the head of the agency appears. Most heads of departments and agencies accept they do not know everything and it is helpful to have knowledgeable people around them,” Crosbie said.
“This ‘it is all about me’ approach of Dr Johns stands in stark contrast to the behaviour of his predecessor and the heads of all other government agencies. It is a diminution of the accountability of the ACNC to have a relatively new and not very well informed representative appear alone to answer questions – many of which he cannot answer.
“It is especially poor behaviour from an agency that was established to improve accountability of the sector to itself avoid accountability in this way.”
However Johns told Pro Bono News the decision was made to “lessen the burden on the ACNC”.
“Senate Estimates is an important part of the democratic process, as it gives the public, via the Senators on the committee, the opportunity to scrutinise the activities and decisions being made within government agencies,” Johns said.
“I have chosen to represent the ACNC on my own at both hearings since I was appointed as the commissioner. I have done this to lessen the burden on the ACNC.
“We are a very small agency; we have 100 staff to regulate 56,000 registered charities. Having other senior staff accompany me increases the cost of travel, and impacts the ACNC’s ability to deliver on our core work of registering and regulating Australia’s charities.”
It marks the second time he has appeared alone in front of the Senate, following a previous appearance in February which drew attention at the time from Senator Rachel Siewert who questioned whether he had other staff with him.
She also commented that many of the questions addressed to Johns were taken on notice.
Siewert told Pro Bono News she found it “concerning” both in February and this week, when Johns fronted estimates alone.
“Both times Mr Johns was unable to answer relatively simple questions that I would have thought the ACNC would be able to answer on the spot,” Siewert said.
“With the fact that Mr Johns is new to the role, it of course makes sense that alongside him colleagues within the ACNC appear to assist in answering questions put by Senators.”
Johns said it was common to take on notice questions where detail was required.
“For example, the Tax Commissioner appears with a large number of public servants, and yet a considerable number of questions are taken on notice,” he said.
“I may observe that of the several dozen questions that I have been asked, only two or three have been taken on notice.”
Johns suggested that the Australian Senate could adopt the approach taken in New Zealand where agencies are sent questions in advance.
“A more sensible system would be for the Senate to send questions to departments and agencies prior to their appearance,” Johns said.
“This system is used in New Zealand and would facilitate better understanding by Senators of the responsibilities that commissions and departments undertake on behalf of governments and taxpayers.”
But Crosbie was critical of the suggestion which he said would “defeat the purpose”.
“I know of no other agency that seeks to have questions in advance – it defeats the purpose of being able to directly question the performance of an agency in relation to expenditure and policy making, and to raise issues that arise through the hearings,” he said.
Siewert said it could lead to a reduction in transparency.
“I would need to look at the NZ model, but my initial thoughts are that those that come before estimates should be expected to be able to answer questions about the portfolio, and questions during sessions often occur on the spot as you delve into issues,” she said.
“There is already a process for questions on notice.
“To submit questions beforehand would be a reduction in transparency and halt an organic line of questioning that occurs during senate estimates to get to the bottom of an issue”.