Labor gives charities the spotlight in final days of election campaign
Wednesday, 8th May 2019 at 4:57 pm
Labor has pledged to fix fundraising laws, protect charitable advocacy and slash red tape for the sector if voted to power in the 18 May federal election, a move broadly welcomed by the charity sector.
Andrew Leigh, shadow minister for charities, confirmed on Wednesday that Labor would appoint Australia’s first ever charities minister to “fix the damage” of a six-year “war” waged against the sector by the government.
He announced a number of election commitments, including big ticket items of protecting charitable advocacy and fixing state fundraising laws – two issues the sector has been incredibly vocal on.
David Crosbie, the CEO of the Community Council Australia (CCA) welcomed the focus on the charity sector in the final race to the election.
“We’re used to politicians talking about what business needs, but charities are rarely given a second thought, despite all the reform needed to ensure we have a strong charities sector moving forward,” Crosbie said.
It follows a tumultuous year for charities and not for profits fighting against the government’s foreign donations bill which many said would unfairly restrict advocacy and impose unnecessary red-tape on organisations.
Leigh said that a Labor government would clarify the Charities Act and the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission Act to formally recognise the public benefits of advocacy by charities.
Emily Howie, the legal director of the Human Rights Law Centre, said the policies announced on Wednesday would provide welcome clarity and confidence that charities could speak out on matters connected to their mission.
“All governments find criticism inconvenient or uncomfortable, but that’s part and parcel of a good democracy. Governments should be enabling healthy, robust public discussion, not silencing it,” Howie said.
Saffron Zomer, the government relations manager for the Australian Conservation Foundation, said formally recognising that advocacy was a legitimate way for charities to pursue their mission was a relief.
“It’s been years of attacks from different directions which has meant we’ve had to basically defend our right to exist and to do the work that we do,” Zomer said.
“So it’s nice to see them signaling that there might be a change of approach.”
Marc Purcell, CEO of the Australian Council For International Development (ACFID), added that ensuring charities had the right to advocate for their mission was critical for a healthy democracy.
“It’s very welcome, particularly in light of our experience of charities over the past year where there was some pressure from the government to constrain free speech by charities,” Purcell said.
Leigh also committed to making Australia’s fundraising laws nationally consistent within two years of being elected, working with states, territories, Treasury and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to reduce red tape for charities.
This is a move Purcell described as a “no-brainer”.
“Whoever wins, the next government needs to take the patchwork quilt of different regulatory regimes in the states and territories and bring it into a uniform fundraising approach, because the transaction costs are simply too high now for any charities that are working beyond their own home state,” Purcell said.
Katherine Raskob, CEO of the Fundraising Institute Australia, told Pro Bono News that Labor’s position on fundraising red tape reform was welcome after such a long battle to see change.
“With true leadership, harmonisation can be achieved within two years and FIA are keen to work closely with the Commonwealth government to do this,” Raskob said.
“It will be a huge benefit to FIA members and the sector as a whole who bear the not insignificant cost of various and onerous fundraising requirements that are not currently fit for purpose for fundraising in Australia today.”
The commitment to amend fundraising laws is now something all major parties have committed to do if elected.
Under a Labor government, the ACNC advisory board will also be given more power to go directly to the charities minister about the role of the ACNC.
Crosbie told Pro Bono News this was a positive reform because currently the board, which is appointed by the government, does not have any official relationship with the charities minister, and has no power to actively set an agenda for the organisation.
“All it can do at the moment is to provide advice to a commissioner who may or may not take that advice, or may or may not even attend the meeting,” Crosbie said.
Leigh has been a staunch critic of the current ACNC commissioner Dr Gary Johns, starting a petition demanding he step down.
Johns’ appointment is statutory which means he cannot be removed from the role by a new government.
A Sydney Morning Herald article suggested the move to give more power to the advisory board could be a way to side-step Johns. But Crosbie said he didn’t believe this was an attempt by Leigh to bypass the commissioner, it was just about providing the advisory board with a clear position should Johns choose to not take their advice.
He also said the commitment by Leigh to reinstate the Annual Charities Report, an initiative scrapped under Johns, was welcome news.
“Without the report, we do not have up to date data about the size of the sector, how many people are employed… that’s a real gap in knowledge about the sector,” he said.
“Charities are choosing to give their information to the commission and as part of its role should be providing useful information back to the charity sector.”
With Australians heading to the polls in only a number of days, the Coalition are yet to announce any big plans for the charity sector.
A number of sector leaders said they hoped the party would come to the table before the election.
Mat Tinkler, the acting CEO of Save the Children, said: “Charity and regulation of charities doesn’t often feature in the election debate and I think that’s a shame. It’s to the country’s detriment that there isn’t more of a conversation around these issues.
“We would very much encourage the Coalition to respond and outline their own vision and agenda for the charity and not-for-profit sector should they be returned to government.”