Government response to ACNC review ‘coming soon’
3 September 2019 at 8:10 am
The sector could have to wait until next year for a response to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission review, says the assistant minister for charities.
In an interview with Pro Bono News, Zed Seselja said he was currently working through the response to the ACNC review, meeting with charities, peak bodies and the ACNC advisory board to “fundamentally get it right”.
He stressed the federal government wanted to work with the sector to make sure it’s as effective as possible, and said the response was “coming soon”.
“If not later on this year, then certainly early next year,” Seselja said.
It has already been more than a year since the final report from the mandated five-year review of the ACNC’s legislation was tabled in Parliament in August 2018.
It made 30 recommendations aimed at finding “a balance between supporting the sector, reducing red tape, enhancing accountability and addressing misconduct”.
Assistant Minister Seselja said he wanted to prioritise cutting red tape for the charity sector, as well as strengthening and building confidence in the regulator.
He also said it was critically important to build public confidence in the sector more broadly.
“We have seen in some parts of the community, there’s been less confidence in the charity sector and we want to reverse that if possible,” Seselja said.
He dismissed concerns about the appointment of Dr Gary Johns to head up the ACNC, saying he believed Johns had done a very good job.
“The overwhelming feedback I get from the sector is that he and the ACNC are doing the job that they’ve been asked to do by the Parliament when they established this independent regulator,” Seselja said.
“I think that those critics have been very much proven wrong by the performance of Mr Johns. I think he’s been very professional, I think he implements the law, as we would expect him to, and I have confidence in him.”
Seselja suggested the sector could see changes to the secrecy laws that prevent the regulator from commenting on investigations into charities.
He said having a situation where the commissioner was unable to tell either the relevant minister or the public if he is or isn’t investigating a charity was not ideal.
“So within certain bounds, I think that there needs to be some changes there,” he said.
But on the question of fundraising regulation, the sector will have to wait for the response to the ACNC review to see how the government will proceed.
While Seselja acknowledged it was a critical part of the review and said he was sympathetic to the sector’s concerns, he remained tightlipped about specifics.
“How we deal with that obviously is not something that the Commonwealth alone can fix, because we have to work with the states and territories. So I’m looking forward to doing that,” he said.
“Our response to the review will give an indicator of the direction we’re headed.”
His comments come as the sector was left disappointed, but not surprised, that charitable fundraising was left off the agenda of the annual Consumer Affairs Forum meeting in New Zealand on Friday.
Advocates had been calling on state and territory consumer ministers to make fundraising reform a high priority during the meeting, to begin the process of stripping back “outdated” and inconsistent state-based fundraising laws.
Seselja said he was open to suggestions of tailoring Australian Consumer Law to cover charitable fundraising, which would require working with Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar who has responsibility for Australian Consumer Law, but made no mention of a timeline.
On the issue of advocacy, Seselja reiterated his support for charities to have the right to advocate, but said the government could consider reforms to make it easier to strip some charities of their status.
Speaking at the Annual ACNC Regulatory Conference last month, Seselja said giving groups such as Aussie Farms the same legal status as groups such as Vinnies, the Salvos and the Fred Hollows Foundation caused him some concern, prompting headlines of a potential crackdown on lawless charities.
“Political activists and organisations condoning criminal activities masquerading as charities corrodes Australian’s trust in charities overall,” he said.
Seselja told Pro Bono News he was in no way looking to stop legitimate charities from being advocates for causes they believe in, but there was “a tipping point”.
“I think there is a point where some charities don’t appear to do a lot of charitable work, but certainly look a lot like political organisations. And I suppose if you look and act like a political organisation, then perhaps you should be treated at law a little more like a political organisation,” he said.
“I think it’s something that the government is certainly giving consideration to.”
Seselja said in his role as assistant minister of charities, he hoped to be an advocate for charities.
He said by creating the position the government was sending a clear message that it takes the charity sector very seriously.
“We value the work that charities do. We value their contribution to individuals, to communities, but also to our economy as well,” Seselja said.
He said he was also keen to put the issue of philanthropy on the agenda and promote philanthropy in Australia.
“We don’t have perhaps as high rates of philanthropy as a number of other countries do. And I would like to see that change,” he said.
“As the assistant minister for charities, I think I’m well-placed to understand the work charities are doing, work with them obviously on a regulatory framework, but also really promote to all Australians the virtues of getting behind good causes and getting behind great charities.”