Shorten and Abbott Defend Catholics Against ACNC Probe
16 July 2018 at 4:25 pm
An investigation into the charity status of Melbourne’s peak body for Catholic schools is being slammed by both sides of politics, with Labor leader Bill Shorten and former prime minister Tony Abbott attacking the “disturbing” action taken by the charities regulator.
The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) announced on Sunday it was undertaking an investigation into Catholic Education Melbourne (CEM), regarding concerns the charity could have a disqualifying purpose.
The announcement came after The Weekend Australian revealed that CEM was under investigation for commissioning robocalls and leaflets criticising the Turnbull government’s schools funding policy during the Batman by-election.
CEM had backed a computer-generated phone call to voters which criticised the Turnbull government and the Greens’ school funding policies, while stating that Labor would restore funding cuts.
The robocall ended by saying “the future of our schools depends on who you support”.
Under current charity laws, it was a disqualifying purpose for a charity to have “the purpose of promoting or opposing a political party or a candidate for political office”.
So while charities such as CEM were able to criticise government policy, they were unable to directly support or oppose a political party or candidate.
Labor leader Bill Shorten slammed the investigation on Saturday and suggested the ACNC was in cahoots with the government to silence CEM.
“This is a very disturbing and un-Australian trend that somehow if you are a critic or want to comment on the government of the day, that you then are subject to investigation,” Shorten said.
“Let’s be very, very clear here: If the government, or people are asserting that there is a rule which says that representatives of schools, representatives of the education sector, can no longer criticise cuts to school funding – that is a stupid rule and it needs to be changed.”
Shorten found an unlikely ally in former prime minister Tony Abbott, who was highly critical of the investigation on Twitter.
He said: “In a country under the rule of law, being critical of a government policy should never be the catalyst for official investigation. The charities commission should stop picking on the Catholic Church.”
In a country under the rule of law, being critical of a government policy should never be the catalyst for official investigation. The charities commission should stop picking on the Catholic Church
— Tony Abbott (@TonyAbbottMHR) July 14, 2018
The charities regulator had strongly denied the investigation was driven by the government.
In a statement, ACNC Commissioner Dr Gary Johns said the commission was a regulator “independent of government direction”.
“The ACNC is not directed by government to investigate registered charities, or to reach specific outcomes following an investigation.”
Johns also rebuked reports that the ACNC had threatened CEM with criminal sanctions.
“We are required by the ACNC Act to include in such notices an alert to the charity about potential penalties under the Commonwealth Criminal Code for providing false or misleading information or documents,” he said.
“The ACNC in itself does not have any powers to determine criminal matters.”
Krystian Seibert, an industry fellow at the Centre for Social Impact at Swinburne University, told Pro Bono News much of the reporting and commentary on the matter had been sensationalised and that the ACNC was just doing its job as a regulator.
Let’s just be clear about the ACNC’s powers. It CANNOT impose criminal penalties on charities because they criticise government policy. It can ask for information to assist its inquiries about whether charities have breached charity law. 1/2 https://t.co/0xnesm7GD0
— Krystian Seibert (@KSeibertAu) July 14, 2018
“The ACNC has publicly available procedures in place regarding the use of its information gathering powers,” Seibert said.
“Under the ACNC Act, if a charity doesn’t comply with a request to provide information, civil penalties can apply. Criminal penalties only apply where false or misleading information is provided.
“Charities can and do advocate to further their charitable purposes, and as part of this they can challenge, critique and compare government policies – we have a very good legal framework in Australia when it comes to advocacy by charities.
“However charities can’t have a purpose of supporting or opposing a political party or candidate. And there’s good reason for this restriction, because the role of charities and the trust the public places in them would be diminished were they to lose their political independence and become partisan.”
This is not the first time a Catholic education charity has been warned by the ACNC.
In 2016, the charities regulator expressed concerns to the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria (CECV), after it issued a letter labelling the Greens’ policy on Catholic schools “highly problematic”.