Coalition missing as Labor and Greens champion charities
14 May 2019 at 8:24 am
There was an empty chair on stage at the pre-election forum on Friday after the Coalition failed to provide somebody to participate in a discussion which put charity policy in the spotlight.
For each of the last two federal elections the Community Council for Australia (CCA) has organised a pre-election forum at the National Press Club where the major political parties have outlined their policies for the charities and not-for-profit sector.
This year, CCA brought the forum to the sector at the Connecting Up Transform Conference.
Shadow charities and not-for-profits minister Dr Andrew Leigh and Greens Senator Rachel Siewert both took to the stage to speak passionately about their support for the sector.
CCA CEO David Crosbie said they had also invited Assistant Minister Zed Seselja, Minister for Families and Social Services Paul Fletcher and Liberal MP Kevin Andrews to participate. But final notice that no-one would attend from the Liberal Party came on Wednesday evening.
He said he was “incredibly disappointed” that the Coalition did not send a representative.
But that he found it “very uplifting” to realise the sector had “two strong champions” in Parliament.
“I hope that the sector will continue to use them and support them, because I think we have a role in ensuring our voice is raised so that our champions in Parliament are able to have some kind of momentum about the changes we need,” Crosbie told Pro Bono News.
Siewert applauded the sector for being “the agenda setters” and pledged to listen to charities and support them in the development of national policies including to “defend forever” charities’ role in advocacy.
She also touched on the need to fix fundraising, called for changes to short funding cycles and the competitive approach to tendering, and reiterated the Greens’ commitment to the ACNC.
Speaking after the forum to Pro Bono News, Siewert said the Greens had a role to play in holding the other parties to account.
“We demonstrated that with the ACNC where we listened to the sector and went in and negotiated. I’ve got to say that the government was prepared to work with us which was good, but they weren’t initially listening to what the sector was saying so we were playing that role,” she said.
“We try to be at the leading edge of what is needed. We also develop ideas which are then picked up by others.”
Siewert said she felt Labor valued the sector better than the current government and that the Greens were committed to working with Labor should they win the coming election.
For his part, Leigh said the sector had been facing a war on charities under the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government.
He acknowledged the empty chair left for a Coalition representative and said it was a shame the Coalition was a no-show.
“I think the sector is owed the kind of charity debate that we had in the previous two elections,” he said.
He told Pro Bono News it was really disappointing to see the Coalition “snub the sector”.
“This is a sector which employs 1.3 million Australians, it counts for some 8 per cent of GDP and yet the Coalition can’t engage in the key debates that the charities and not-for-profit sector has at the top of their agenda,” Leigh said.
His speech elaborated on the 10-point charity policy Labor unveiled on Wednesday.
He pledged to fix fundraising over the next two years, entrench the freedom to advocate, ensure the charity passport scheme works for charities and reinstate the annual charities report.
He also revealed plans to provide greater transparency around the remuneration of senior staff in Australia’s charities, following in the footsteps of Britain.
“We’d work constructively with the sector, but we do believe that it’s in the interests of the charity and not-for-profit sector for donors to have similar information to that which is available for corporate shareholders in large firms,” Leigh said.
He told Pro Bono News of all the policies, he was most excited about having a charities minister.
“It is something that hasn’t happened before, it will be an Australian first,” he said.
“It all depends on the result of the election and on the decisions of the prime minister, but I have loved that role and I would love the chance to continue in it.”
Crosbie said he expected the policies to be realised, should Labor be elected to power.
“We know now that pre-election promises tend to become an agenda for an incoming government. I think the fact that they are in the public domain and that many in the sector have been pushing for many of those initiatives for some time means that they will have momentum and we will hold them to account for implementing them,” he said.
Following a call out for questions by Connecting Up, Infoxchange, and Pro Bono Australia, some members of the audience also had a chance to put their questions to the politicians.
In response to a question from Justice Connect’s Sue Woodward about the steps each party would take to fix fundraising, Leigh said he thought the approach of amending Australian Consumer Law was a reasonable way forward.
Speaking to Pro Bono News about his party’s proposed two year timeline, Leigh said he would love to see it work faster but it depended on conversations with state and territory colleagues.
Siewert was playfully reluctant to “give the prospective government all of the tactics” the Greens would use to keep it on the agenda.
She told Pro Bono News the reason it was taking so long to fix fundraising was because governments did not put the priority on fixing it and because the states and territories were fighting it.
“It is just ridiculous. We live in one country with organisations that do the most amazing work and we’re doing them over all the time by not fixing fundraising,” she said.
The politicians also faced questions about whether an incoming government would establish an independent inquiry into the current governance and management of the ACNC.
Leigh said Labor has not made a decision on an inquiry, but reiterated his concerns about the appointment of Dr Gary Johns.
“We’ve been running a petition calling on him to step down. I think that would be in his own interests and the interests of the institution itself,” Leigh said.
Leigh told Pro Bono News putting Johns in charge of the ACNC was “a bit like putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank”.
Siewert said she was under no illusion that Johns was appointed because the government were unable to get rid of the ACNC.
“They gave up on that so they thought they could do it another way and what we see now is the result of that,” she said.
She said they would support a review of what’s been happening at the ACNC.
In answer to a question from Jenny Macaffer, from Adult Learning Australia, around transitioning to longer-term funding models Siewert called for five-year funding cycles, but said there needed to be a review process.
Leigh said longer contract duration was a significant priority.
Responding to a question from Adrienne Picone from Volunteering Australia about ensuring that volunteering is encouraged and supported, Leigh pledged to reinstate a survey to get a better measure of the kinds of volunteering being done.
He also called for a systematic approach from the government “that says that the work of charities and not for profits is to be celebrated rather than to be feared”.
A spokesperson for Minister Fletcher told Pro Bono News the minister was unable to attend as he was in Tasmania on Friday to announce crisis connect funding for a number of organisations across the state and another Stronger Places Stronger People community in Burnie.
“These were important policy announcements for these communities and I hope you can understand why the minister wanted to support his parliamentary colleagues in making these announcements,” they said.
Assistant Minister Seselja did not respond to a request for comment.
See also, Pro Bono News’ interviews with representatives from the Coalition, Labor and The Greens to gauge each party’s vision for the social sector: