‘They don't see eye-to-eye’: Leadership turmoil engulfs the ACNC
16 April 2019 at 8:24 am
The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission has been rocked by a disastrous Senate estimates appearance that has laid bare a major leadership rift over the direction of the charity watchdog.
The ACNC appeared before estimates last week without commissioner Dr Gary Johns, who was in Wellington attending the Charity Law Association of Australia and New Zealand Conference.
Taking Johns’ place at estimates was acting assistant commissioner Catherine Willis, who had been at the ACNC for just two weeks and struggled to answer many questions during the hearing.
It emerged during questioning that assistant commissioner Murray Baird was on leave from the ACNC, and had been offered a temporary position at the Australian Taxation Office, after a major clash with Johns over leadership and the direction of the organisation.
Jacqui Curtis, the ATO’s acting commissioner of taxation, told the hearing Baird approached ATO officers with a number of workplace issues.
“We spoke to Mr Baird. We also spoke to Dr Johns… When we talked to them, it was quite clear that really there was a disagreement about leadership styles and probably philosophy, I guess, about how the organisation was operating,” Curtis said.
“They don’t see eye-to-eye, and we wanted to resolve this at the lowest level possible to try and resolve the conflict.
“We agreed with Mr Baird and Dr Johns, that the best thing to do was that, while we worked through that, we would offer Mr Baird an opportunity to come back into the ATO, into a legal role, which his skill sets do suit, and that is what has actually happened.”
The hearing was told Baird is currently on leave, with Willis filling his role on a temporary basis on transfer from the ATO – which is housed in the same building as the ACNC.
The ATO has also sent a second staff member to the commission for six months to help ACNC with staff engagement and mobility issues – including to help staff move in and out of the ACNC.
These revelations have been met with deep concern by Community Council for Australia CEO David Crosbie, who has been a long-time critic of the ACNC commissioner.
Johns has been a contentious figure in the sector ever since his appointment.
He had been a vocal critic of charities before taking the role, and continued to court controversy by standing by his past comments labelling Indigenous women “cash cows” and calling for people on income support to be forced to use contraception.
He also recently came under fire for his view that including an acknowledgement of country in an email signature indicates a bias toward Indigenous charities.
Sector leaders and anonymous ACNC sources have expressed concern at what they believe is a major decline in staff morale since Johns was appointed commissioner.
Crosbie told Pro Bono News there was no doubt Johns was keen to get rid of senior staff, noting both assistant commissioners in place when Johns was appointed – David Locke and Murray Baird – were not currently there.
“Johns has already got rid of one assistant commissioner – David Locke didn’t just leave – his assistant commissioner position is no longer part of the ACNC. It appears Dr Johns is trying to get rid of the other assistant commissioner Murray Baird,” Crosbie said.
The ACNC said Locke’s position has not and will not be filled due to budget pressures.
The commission believes moving to a flatter organisational structure will mean the ACNC will have more staff answering enquiries, assessing applications to register new charities, and investigating concerns raised by the public.
Crosbie said while the loss of skills and experience was an issue for the sector, the most concerning thing was Johns’ incompetence.
“Dr Johns has never managed an organisation and it shows. The staff have expressed significant concerns about his management, most of which have only partly been addressed,” Crosbie said.
“His personal style is neither here nor there, except that his approach to leadership is having a real impact on the capacity and credibility of the ACNC. And that is our concern. And it is now clearly the concern of the Senate.”
Crosbie said the ACNC was “too important to be gradually gutted by incompetent management” and attacked Johns for failing to attend estimates.
He said the ACNC’s estimates appearance was “embarrassing” but not surprising, given Johns had repeatedly appeared at hearings alone and lacking in expertise.
“Contrary to the practice of most other heads of government and statutory agencies that bring teams of senior experts to their Senate estimates appearances… the ACNC sent someone from the ATO who has been at the ACNC a total of 16 days,” he said.
“So that is the extent of expertise and knowledge of charity regulations the ACNC provides to Parliament as it seeks answers about the performance of the agency and clarification of issues – most of which require a very good understanding of both the ACNC and charity regulation.
“The charities sector and the Parliament deserve much better than this. It is, by any measure, simply unacceptable and must change.”
Johns provided a statement to the hearing saying he was unaware of the estimates date change from May to April and had already committed to attend the Wellington event.
It turns out the ACNC commissioner is in New Zealand at a peak body conference, travel organised late last year when he thought #estimates would be in late May. He really does respect the Senate estimates process but couldn’t change his travel plans, the committee heard.
— Katina Curtis (@katinacurtis) April 10, 2019
The commissioner told Pro Bono News he would continue to represent the ACNC at future Senate estimates hearings.
He refused to shed light on his dispute with Baird, arguing it was an internal matter that would be inappropriate to comment on.
He also refused to say if Baird would return to the ACNC, adding that Baird’s status as an ATO employee was a matter for him and the ATO.
Acting ATO chief operating officer Bradley Chapman confirmed to Pro Bono News that Baird had temporarily transferred to a role at the ATO, but would not comment on his leave arrangements.
But Pro Bono News understands Baird has not in fact left the ACNC for a role at the ATO and rather is absent from the commission due to work-related health issues.
Johns has denied a rift in ACNC leadership was to blame for senior staff leaving, and said he was unaware of any staff leaving because of his leadership style.
“All ACNC staff, including senior leaders, are encouraged to make decisions that are in the best interests of their own careers. David Locke left the ACNC to become the chief ombudsman and CEO of the Australian Financial Complaints Authority,” he said.
The minister responsible for the ACNC, Senator Zed Seselja, said during the hearing he had not been briefed about the leadership shake-up at the commission.
He said the government allowed the ACNC to operate independently.
“I don’t run the ACNC. We allow the commissioner to do that. Obviously, if there are any concerns that need to be brought to ministerial level, they will be, but they haven’t to date,” Seselja said.
Johns’ appointment is statutory which means he cannot be removed from the role by a new government.
With the federal election soon approaching, the ACNC faces the possibility of a Labor government – which would likely make Andrew Leigh the minister responsible for charities.
Leigh has been a staunch critic of Johns, demanding he step down and starting a petition calling on him to do so.
Johns said 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.