ALP pledges to be champions of the charity sector
18 April 2019 at 8:00 am
Labor MP Andrew Leigh has vowed an ALP government will “end the war on charities” and strengthen the role of the charities commission, while continuing to put pressure on controversial commissioner Dr Gary Johns.
But Leigh – currently the shadow minister for charities and not for profits – admits he is unsure about his own future as the sector’s dedicated minister.
In the lead up to May’s federal election, Pro Bono News is speaking with representatives from the Coalition, Labor and The Greens to gauge each party’s vision for the social sector.
Leigh said if Labor wins the upcoming election, their first priority would be to end the war on charities and build a constructive and positive government relationship with the sector.
“Over the last six years we’ve had six Coalition ministers responsible for charities, three prime ministers and a constant barrage of attacks on charities and not for profits,” Leigh said.
“It’s been a really tough six years for the sector so first of all it’s important just to rebuild the relationship.”
Almost 70 per cent of people surveyed also believed dissenting organisations risked having their funding cut.
Really thoughtful policy work by @PhilanthropyAus. If I’m given the chance to serve as Australia’s Charities Minister after the election, we’ll end the war on charities. And we’ll work with the sector to build a stronger, more generous & more connected nation. #auspol https://t.co/IltCfmyKTc
— Andrew Leigh (@ALeighMP) April 10, 2019
Leigh has been shadow minister for charities and not for profits for a number of years now, and sector leaders have welcomed Labor’s commitment to having a dedicated charities minister.
But Leigh could not confirm he would remain in the role if a Labor government was elected.
“All of these appointments are subject to the decisions that the prime minister makes. But I would certainly hope to continue in the role,” he said.
“I’ve really valued building up those relationships with a whole lot of charities, working alongside them, understanding their issues and talking about a positive reform agenda and what that looks like.”
A key issue Leigh will have to navigate if he becomes charities minister is the government’s relationship with Dr Gary Johns, head of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.
Johns has been a contentious figure in the sector ever since his appointment and there is speculation staff morale at the ACNC has significantly declined under his leadership – although the commission denies this.
These concerns have intensified in recent days after it emerged assistant commissioner Murray Baird was on leave from the ACNC after a major clash with Johns over leadership and the direction of the organisation.
Leigh has been a staunch critic of Johns, demanding he step down and starting a petition calling on him to do so.
But Johns’ appointment is statutory which means he cannot be removed from the role by a new government.
Leigh doubled down on his opposition of Johns, repeating claims his appointment was “like putting Bronwyn Bishop in charge of transport for politicians or Ned Kelly in charge of bank security.”
“He is somebody who has spent his life as a charities critic and is ill-suited to the role of running the ACNC,” he said.
“He cannot be dismissed by the government of the day but I’ve called on him to step down because I don’t think this is the right role for Gary Johns and having him run the commission is definitely not the right thing for Australian charities.”
But Leigh would not say if Labor was considering legislative changes to make it possible for Johns to be removed.
He said he would do what he could to make the relationship work in the event Johns wanted to stay on, admitting Labor’s first priority was winning the election.
“I’d certainly do him the courtesy of sitting down and meeting with him and talking with him about his view of his future – if we’re elected and I retain my position as charity minister,” he said.
Johns on his part told Pro Bono News last week he would never consider stepping down as ACNC commissioner and was happy to work with any minister assigned to the commission.
“I am ready, willing and able to work with whoever is the minister responsible for the ACNC following the 18 May 2019 federal election,” he said.
Labor’s Andrew Leigh says PM Malcolm Turnbull should step in to quash the appointment of Gary Johns as Commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission @abcnews #auspol @abcnews pic.twitter.com/PNtjrJpKuD
— Anna Henderson (@annajhenderson) December 6, 2017
Leigh did reaffirm Labor’s commitment to the ACNC and said he supported strengthening the regulator’s role.
“Labor created the ACNC, we’re huge champions of the organisation unlike the Coalition who spent five years trying to shut it down and appointed a charities critic as its head,” he said.
“I’d like to see the ACNC playing an even stronger role engaging with states and territories to remove duplicate regulations.
“The extension of the charity’s passport and the expansion of programs that reduce duplicate paperwork has got to be in the interest of our charitable sector.”
Leigh added the ACNC review raised some useful recommendations that Labor would look into if it won office.
He said the charities commission should envisage to play the same role for charities as the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) played for corporations.
“I’d like to move further towards that because I think that having ASIC as a one stop shop for corporations has made business easier,” he said.
“Similarly, having the ACNC as a one stop shop for charities would make philanthropy and charitable activities easier.”
Leigh also pledged a Labor government would not crackdown on charitable advocacy in the future and said fundraising reform was a “high priority” that should be achieved within two years post-election.
Another reform the sector has been calling for is for all charities to be given Deductible Gift Recipient (DGR) status, given smaller charities with less resources were often disadvantaged when trying to obtain it.
Leigh said changes in DGR status could have significant budgetary costs meaning a careful assessment of this reform was first needed.
“But we do want to make sure that [DGR categories] are updated for a modern age so those tax concessions are available to charities that are doing work in the public interest,” he said.
Leigh also said given the Great Barrier Reef Foundation grant fiasco, a Labor government was committed to a more transparent and accessible processes around government funding decisions.
“We’d make sure that we had proper processes in place and I know from many of the organisations that work with the government that the problem isn’t being showered in money,” he said.
“The problem is getting so little money on such short terms that you’re not able to do important work in the community.
“So [Labor’s priority] is making sure there’s greater funding certainty for organisations so they can put in put in place programs and employ staff on a year-to-year basis without having to constantly ask for more funding.”
On the question of Newstart, the social sector has long pushed for the payment – which has not risen in real terms since 1994 – to be raised by $75 a week.
While the Greens support this push, Labor has remained coy, promising only to review the payment within 18 months of being elected.
This has drawn the ire of anti-poverty advocates, who say people struggling on the payment cannot afford to wait this long for change.
.@billshortenmp: I can confirm and announce to this conference that if we are elected, a Labor govt will initiate an urgent review into the inadequacy of Newstart payments. We will ensure the review will be completed within 18 months.
— Sky News Australia (@SkyNewsAust) December 16, 2018
Leigh confirmed the process would “ultimately” lead to a rise in the payment, explaining a thorough review was the best way forward.
“We’re not reviewing it because we think it’s too high. We’re reviewing it because we think it’s too low. We’re doing with Newstart what we did with the pension in 2007,” Leigh said.
“Prior to the 2007 election, Labor didn’t say that we would put a particular dollar on the pension increase. We said we’d review the pension and that review led to the largest pension increase in history moving about a million pensioners out of poverty.
“So that’s the same process that we would follow with Newstart. A careful independent review [that would] ultimately lead to an increase in the payment.”
Pro Bono News is speaking with representatives from the Coalition, Labor and The Greens in the lead up to the federal election about their policies for the social sector.