What is The Greens’ vision for the social sector?
Monday, 15th April 2019 at 5:22 pm
Greens Senator Rachel Siewert says protecting charitable advocacy and ensuring community organisations are properly funded will be her party’s major priorities in Australia’s next Parliament, as the federal election campaign heats up.
Pro Bono News is speaking with representatives from the Coalition, Labor and The Greens to gauge each party’s vision for the social sector post-election.
As The Greens’ community services spokesperson, Siewert said her party believed the social sector was a central part of Australia’s democracy that drove change and showed leadership on important issues.
Siewert said the nation needed a strong and healthy civil society and advocacy needed to be supported and recognised as part of this.
“There needs to be an acknowledgement from all political parties that advocacy is a key part of the work that civil society does and the community sector does,” Siewert said.
“Community groups should not only be allowed to engage in advocacy but enabled to do it, and not penalised for doing it. It’s a really strong issue for us.”
Advocacy was a big issue for the sector in 2018, especially with the government’s foreign donations bill.
Charities led a long and ultimately successful campaign to amend the bill – which broadened registration and disclosure requirements for non-party political actors – arguing it would stifle advocacy and impose unnecessary red-tape on these organisations.
Siewert said another focus for The Greens was making sure community services were adequately funded in line with growth in the consumer price index.
The Australian Council of Social Service has recently called for a $2 billion a year Commonwealth funding increase for community services, arguing funding for community groups had been marked by uncertainty, under-resourcing and cuts in recent years.
ACOSS warned the cost of service delivery for many organisations already outweighed Commonwealth funding.
Siewert called for longer-term funding contracts for community organisations.
“We need to be making sure that organisations are being funded enough to pay their staff because at the moment a lot of organisations are running on the smell of an oily rag and dipping into their own funds to keep things going,” she said.
Siewert has been a vocal critic of Dr Gary Johns since he was appointed head of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission in late 2017 and has had numerous run-ins with him in Senate Estimates.
She said she remained opposed to Johns but continued to support the ACNC.
“I’ve made no secret of the fact that I don’t think Gary Johns is the appropriate person to be running the ACNC,” she said.
Siewert also expressed concern about the potential for the ACNC to be weaponised under the government, following reports senior Coalition government figures were pushing for politically active charities including Greenpeace and the Australian Conservation Foundation to lose their charity status.
“In principle we still support the ACNC, but we need to make sure that its role of promoting and supporting the not-for-profit sector and NGOs continues,” she said.
“I am deeply concerned that the ACNC’s role could be politicised when groups speak out… the ACNC was never designed to do that and it shouldn’t be used to pick on particular environmental organisations.
“We also need to have a commitment from the major parties that they’re not going to use gag clauses to prevent charities speaking out.”
Another area of concern for Siewert was the government’s crackdown on welfare, highlighted by an increase in Disability Support Pension appeals and people being forced onto lower Newstart payments.
She noted Labor should also be held responsible for undertaking a “race to the bottom” to demonise people on income support.
“We need to ensure Australians are proud of our income support system and that includes making sure people can access it when they need to and that they’re getting adequate payments,” she said.
The Greens have spent over a decade campaigning for Newstart to be increased and support ACOSS’ push for a $75 a week rise in the payment.
Siewert has introduced four private members bills to increase Newstart since she has been in Parliament and said she intends to keep fighting to raise the rate.
The party also wants to guarantee free or low-cost access to all essential community services including disability services, childcare, mental health and aged care.
The Greens have expressed plans to establish a Commonwealth taskforce to identify areas with unmet needs in social services to ensure no one is left behind.
As a vocal critic of ParentsNext – which came under fire for forcing single mothers on welfare to attend appointments and complete activities or risk having their payments cut – Siewert believes the pre-employment program should be completely reformed.
She wants the $350 million currently spent on ParentsNext to be used to create a new voluntary program that better supports vulnerable families.
She added that The Greens supported the sector’s long-running push for fundraising reform.
“There is an absolute need for fundraising reform because having a different system across Australia is ridiculous and with much more fundraising done online that makes it even more difficult,” she said.
“There has been a reluctance to tackle this issue properly and we definitely support reforming the process.”
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.